“You aren’t going to throw my first fish back in the water, are you?”, my then new wife asked my father on her first fishing trip in the USA.
“Sorry this flounder is no more than 14 inches long and it has to be at least 15 inches by state regulation for us to keep it,” Dad explained. He measured the fish on the cooler so my wife would know that the flounder was undersized. It measured 13 ½ inches. Dad threw the flounder back so it could grow some more before fulfilling its destiny to be deep fried for someone else’s dinner someday.
“In the Philippines, we eat fish a lot smaller than that.” My wife commented and mildly protested. She certainly was speaking the truth. On my visit, my now Filipino family cooked and ate fish that were the size of goldfish or minnows. Dad sometimes uses fish larger than what they ate for bait. Dad and I explained why there were regulations on the size of the fish to give the fish time to make more fish so that in the long run there would be enough fish for people in the future to catch and eat.
My wife and I look very different. We grew up in different countries and cultures on opposite sides of Planet Earth, but we actually have many things in common. One is that both of our fathers were/are fishermen. My wife’s father was a subsistence fisherman in Bohol, Philippines. Dad is a lifelong recreational fisherman in North Carolina, USA. I like to fish for 2 or 3 hours. I am not the fisherman Dad is. My father can fish all day because he loves to. My wife’s father would also go out in his small boat and fish all day, but he did it because he had to. He had to provide for his wife and 9 children and he did with hook, line, net, and sweat. I am not sure if what my wife’s father did is possible anymore because I believe the fishing in the Philippines isn’t what it used to be and is likely to get worse, not better. My wife’s father passed away over 15 years ago, but his eldest son would probably list his occupation as a fisherman and he says there are a lot less fish than there used to be around Bohol anyway. He has fished the area for over 50 years. Bohol is only 1 of over 7,000 Filipino islands, still, I think the fish population in the waters surrounding the Philippines is declining.
Subsistence fishing is fishing and taking your catch to market and selling enough to have money to buy rice, clothes and other necessities. The few fish you do not sell you bring home to provide your family with protein. Fish is the number one source of protein in the Philippines. I wrote a previous article on the fact that most Filipinos do not eat much “Filipino Food”. What most Filipinos eat is rice and small fish with local, usually grown in their yard, vegetables and fruit.
Why is the fish population declining around the Philippines?
My opinion of why the fish population is decreasing is the following problems: destructive fishing, unregulated fishing, and over-fishing. I think these factors have all contributed in different degrees to the current situation that I fear will only get worse in the future.
Destructive fishing practices include but are surely not limited to dynamite fishing, cyanide fishing, and electro fishing.
Dynamite fishing is where the fisherman throws a lit stick of dynamite in water. After the explosion, the fisherman scoops up the dead or stunned fish. This type of fishing is obviously destructive in that it kills fish indiscriminately and destroys habitat like coral reefs. While I am sure this fishing occurs, I have my doubt that it is common. For one thing Filipinos like fresh fish. Fresh fish means alive in the Philippines. Fish that are already dead are not as marketable. A second reason I think it is rare is the lack of available dynamite. I don’t think dynamite fishing is a major factor to the decline in the fish population.
Cyanide fishing is something I had never heard of before I decided to write this article. In cyanide fishing, a diver takes a water pistol filled with a cyanide salt water solution underwater and squirts fish with the solution to stun the fish. When I first read about it, I made several assumptions all of which were apparently wrong. I assume the practice was rare and apparently it is not. I assumed the cyanide would surely kill the fish and actually, the reason for using the cyanide is to increase the chances of capturing the fish alive. I assume the primary danger would be to the fish and any human that eats it and that it unlike dynamite fishing does little to harm the coral reefs, but I read an article in Scientific American, that actually said the opposite was the case. Destruction of fish habitats will certainly cause the number of fish to be diminished. I certainly do not want to eat fish that were stunned by cyanide then netted, but perhaps I already have. Still, I do not believe cyanide fishing is the biggest culprit in the reduction of the fish population near the Philippines.
Electrofishing is using electric current to attract and stun fish. It is illegal in the Philippines unless done for research. I first thought electrofishing was simply taking a car battery hooking up some jumper cables and throwing the unhooked ends into the water to electrocute a bunch of fish and then turning the power off and scooping up the dead fish. It is actually a lot more complicated than that. It is used by researchers to capture fish alive and is not effective in saltwater as I learned from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Electrofishing doesn’t sound that bad if done correctly. Again, I do not feel electrofishing is a major contributor to the reduction of the Philippine fish population.
An update to the beginning of my article. In North Carolina, USA, you used to be allowed to keep 6 flounder a day if they were over 15 inches, now you can only keep 4 flounder per day. I think that is because the NC flounder population is dwindling. There are reasons for these regulations. They are in place to ensure that fish have a chance to reproduce and to ensure fishing is viable for future generations. I am not sure how many similar regulations exist in the Philippines, but I am pretty sure the regulations are ignored. It is hard to blame a fisherman for keeping an undersized fish if his children are going hungry if he does not. In the USA, most fishermen follow regulations even though they know there is little chance of being caught by the game warden, but relatively few US fishermen are struggling to feed their families. Unfortunately, when fish are harvested before they are allowed to reproduce the numbers of fish will decline over time. My opinion is that this is a major cause of the decline in the fish population in the seas surrounding the Philippines and I don’t know how this can be changed.
Another major problem, in my opinion, is that the human population of the Philippines is increasing at a high rate. With more hungry human mouths to feed each year, this will put an increasing strain on the number of fish. Two answers to providing enough fish for the increasing human population are commercial fishing and aquaculture. Commercial fishermen have the advantage of larger boats with large nets and they can fish a greater area and areas farther from shore than subsistence fishermen. The competition from commercial fishermen, at sea and in the market, makes it harder for subsistence fishermen to catch and make enough on their catch to buy rice. Aquaculture can produce more fish per area, but reduces the variety of fish and eliminates some of the areas that subsistence fishermen have traditionally fished. In conclusion, I think the days of traditional Filipino fishermen living and supporting a family off of what they catch are coming to an end. This makes me feel sad. I dedicate this article to my wife’s father, Papa Leon, a man I never met, but that I admire greatly, and my father, a man I have known all my life and admire greatly!