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Where have all the fishes gone


By Josine Alexandra Gamboa

where have all the fishes gone

The Numbers

As the second largest archipelago in the world, the Philippines is one of the richest countries in terms of marine biodiversity and natural resources. Located at the Coral Triangle, with around 600 other Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), it is a key biodiversity hotspot that supports the health of the world’s marine ecosystem. It is also the top eighth fish-producing country, making the world highly reliant on our waters for food.

In addition, by nature of it being an archipelago, more than 60 percent of its communities are coastal communities. The fisheries sector contributes an average of 1.8 percent, or around P90 billion, to our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with 62 percent of that product coming from the ocean, and 47 percent of that product caught by municipal fishers (those fishing within 15 kms of the coastline).

As a result, the population relies on our fisherfolk to supply 70 percent of our total animal protein. Despite the country being composed mostly of coastal communities, and almost half of the catch coming from municipal waters, coastal communities and municipal fishers remain the poorest of the poor, estimating a poverty incidence of four individuals in every 10, and an estimated daily income equivalent to roughly the retail value of two kilograms of fish.

 The Big Bad Wolf: Climate change

Climate change has continually battered the agriculture sector in the Philippines, with a cost projected to be at about R26 billion per year in losses through 2050 due to direct climate risks like extreme weather events. This number becomes increasingly intimidating when indirect climate risks are taken into account, such as unquantified social costs from displacement caused by sea level rise and salinization of ground water.

Considering that more than 60 percent of municipalities in the Philippines are coastal, making them highly susceptible to both fast (storm surges) and slow (sea level rise and salinization) onset events of climate change, and considering that these communities support almost half of the total fish catch of the Philippines, climate change directly threatens the food security of the country and the world by threatening not only the livelihood, but also the quality of life of its fisherfolk.

In areas that already suffer from overfishing, climate change poses an increased burden to our oceans. Sea-level rise, warmer surface temperature, changes in salinity, wave conditions and ocean circulation, and diminishing wetlands and nurseries all lead to a disruption of our aquatic systems, which in turn will lead to a decrease in its productivity as it struggles to adapt to these changing factors.

Studies have shown that a number of aquatic species have already evolved biologically to adapt to climate change, and a number may not even be able to, all this leading to a possible collapse of the marine ecosystem by nature of its interconnectedness.

The Big Bad Wolf’s Evil Twin: Ocean acidification

The ocean is the largest carbon sink of our planet, both in size and in long-term storage. At the rate our population is pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, however, the natural processes of the ocean cannot keep up. Thus, the ocean is bombarded with carbon and, in turn, the ocean’s pH level becomes acidic. This change in pH level causes coral bleaching and a range of metabolic and immunity issues in marine organisms. It has been seen that the change in pH level makes it difficult for corals and planktons to calcify, making them vulnerable to dissolution and, in effect, decreases the capacity of coral reefs to support a healthy fish population.

The Pollution Problem: Plastic waste

The Philippines, along with China, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, account for 60 percent of land-based marine pollution around the world, overwhelmingly in the form of plastic. The characteristics observed among these countries are rapid economic growth, a reduction in poverty, and an improved way of life, thus leading to an increased consumption of goods, most of which are packaged in plastic. With the steady rise of economies in Asia, it has been estimated that consumption of plastic packaging would increase at a rate of 80 percent by 2025.

The Philippines, ranking third on the list, produces 2.7 million metric tons of plastic, with 521,000 tons of it going to the ocean. And where does this plastic waste go after it goes to the ocean? Surprisingly, it probably ends up on your plate! Plastic waste that flows into the ocean is either ingested by fish or entangles the fish.

A study conducted recently found that 18 percent of the sampled fish that consist the human diet, such as tuna, albacore, and swordfish, carried high levels of plastic pollution. It was noted that these large pelagic fish would have probably indirectly ingested plastic waste by eating smaller fish that have directly ingested it. So, in effect, plastic waste has infiltrated the whole food system of our oceans.

Most of this plastic pollution can be attributed to microplastics, which are small particles of plastic found in your exfoliating cosmetic products or microfibers of clothes, among others. They are small enough for fish to ingest, but it doesn’t stop there.The ingestion of plastic by humans can lead to a variety of health problems, including low reproductive rates and endocrine disruption.

 The Other Pollution Problem: Mercury

Mercury, like plastic waste, seeps into our ocean and contaminates the fish we eat and destroys their habitat. Mercury poisoning is caused by industries, particularly mining, with coal plants as the biggest industrial source globally. The Philippines is considered as one of the countries highly involved in activities causing mercury pollution, with the two main sources coming from mined mercury deposits and the use of mercury in gold extraction.

It has been estimated that an average of 20 tons of mercury per year is released into the rivers of Mindanao alone, with this mercury making its way to our fish through these estuaries. Samples of various fish such as tuna, lapu-lapu, sardines, and milkfish have shown mercury levels of 0.6 ppm-1.0 ppm, with the recommended level being at 0.5ppm.

An increased level of mercury in the human diet can lead to kidney failure, allergic skin reactions, bronchitis, and other respiratory problems, and chromosome damage on the fetus.

 The Elephant in the Room: Overburdened oceans, overburdened fisherfolk

Fish catch has leveled off since the 1990s with a rate of 2.7 million metric tons. But the steady rate is attributed to the expansion in aquaculture and not to the sustainability of fishing practices in our oceans. An alarming rate has been observed where fish catch has been seen to be less than five percent of the levels observed only a few decades ago.

If we maintain a business-as-usual attitude, with no interventions in coastal fisheries resource management and no efforts to control human population, it is estimated that Philippine waters would need to produce 3.2 million metric tons of fish by 2020, which is 500,000 metric tons more than our current production.

A huge hurdle in better managing our marine resources is the problem of poverty. Unsustainable fishing practices, like dynamite and cyanide fishing and bottom trawling, are pursued by fisherfolk to increase their catch per unit effort, or their ability to catch the most number of fish with the least amount of effort, therefore maximizing costly resources like fuel and bait.

Couple that to the fact that municipal fisherfolk are the most impoverished sector of society and that catch per unit effort in municipal waters is dwindling by a rate of 30 percent, and you see the immediacy of the problem and the imminence of the collapse.

Another problem is that we eat too much of a single species. Tuna and salmon, both migratory fish, are so popular with consumers that they are alarmingly overfished as a species. There is also the problem of sharks, a top predator in the food chain, being killed solely for their fins, as well as particular species being harvested to produce fish oil supplements. This overfishing of a single species creates a vacuum in the food chain that could very well lead to the collapse of the marine ecosystem.

 The Saving Grace: Mindful consumption

In this article, we have seen that the problems of our oceans are all anthropogenic or man-made. The silver lining to all of this is that since we are the cause, we can control the outcome. Besides the macro approach of better marine-resource management through government intervention, what we need to consider and explore is the micro approach of mindful consumption.

While we celebrate the increased spending power of our population, as evidenced by the amount of plastic waste we consume, we must be mindful of the effects of our consumption on our oceans. Here are some ways that we can help our oceans and ensure food security:

1.  We can support local businesses that promote sustainable fishing practices.

Recently, the Sustainable Seafood Week was held in Manila, organized by the Sustainable Seafood Initiative in partnership with Meliomar. The event showcased hotel chains that have committed to serve seafood sourced from properly managed fisheries, like Shangri-La, Sofitel, the Peninsula, Marriott, Marco Polo, and Raffles and Fairmont, among others. It also showcased a range of dried fish product by Meliomar that are sold in stores like ECHOstore. These products encourage local fishing communities to manage their resources by putting a premium on sustainable fishing practices. In addition, buying your fish from local fisherfolk means your fish has not been transported far, cutting on the carbon footprint of the goods.

2. We can cut down the number of plastic we consume, and we can dispose of it properly.

The age-old adage that what goes around comes around holds truest in the pollution problem, especially that of plastic waste. I am sure that all of us who have eaten fish have at least once ingested plastic that we consumed in the form of exfoliating facials or fleece sweaters. Here are the simplest of ways to reduce your plastic consumption: bring a reusable water bottle or coffee tumbler, stash a cloth shopping bag in your hand bag, buy a metal straw, do not support fast fashion, switch to a menstrual cup, avoid taking out food from restaurants, say no to plastic utensils, buy bigger bottles of toiletries, and do not buy sachets. A lot of the problem with plastic consumption is the need of humans for convenience, but I hope we all agree that a little inconvenience will go a long way (and at least we don’t get plastic in our food). And when you do have to consume plastic, recycle it as much as you can. Again, cutting down on your plastic consumption will cut down your carbon footprint since it decreases the demand to manufacture plastic.

 3. Be mindful of the fish that you eat.

Make sure that your consumption of fish species is balanced and, if not, try to consume less of the more popular fishes and more of the less popular ones. I have found through my visits to local fishing communities that we are abound with other fish species, all of which are just as delicious as tuna and salmon. And please, if you can, give up the fish oil supplements.

4. Most importantly, educate yourself.

In this day and age of smartphones and easy Internet accessibility, we have a wealth of information at our fingertips, including on the topic of keeping our oceans healthy. I have found that following the social media accounts of environmental organizations has been the easiest way to learn more about sustainable resource management and how we can do our part. It is also interesting to note that media providers such as Netflix have ventured into topics like minimalism and sustainable food behavior in their documentaries. These hold a wealth of information and are always a fun way to learn. So do take advantage of the conversation and educate yourself.

 Atty. Josine Alexandra Gamboa is an environmental lawyer and policy specialist. She is currently the manager for Government Initiatives of Rare, an international non-government organization working in coastal fisheries resource management and behavior change. She has also been part of the Philippine delegation to the negotiations in the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change since 2016.

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