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Is subsistence fishing in the Philippines sustainable?

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“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.

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“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.

Dynamite fishing

Dynamite fishing

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.

Dynamite fishing

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

Cyanide fishing

Cyanide fishing

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.

Unregulated Fishing

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.

Aquaculture

Aquaculture

Overfishing

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!

Jay Stainback

Jay Stainback lives in Raleigh, NC, USA and is hoping/planning to retire to Bohol in about 10 years. He is married to his beautiful Filipina wife Juliet whom he met on-line. They were married 12/7/02 and have two boys’ ages 9 years old and 5 years old. Jay has visited the Philippines 4 times the first time 1 week, the 2nd time 2 weeks, the 3rd time for 3 weeks, the 4th time 4 weeks spending most of their time in Bohol.

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angkoldoy
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angkoldoy

I just (January) retired after a career as a Conservation and Resources Enforcement officer which allows me to be a bit of an expert on this subject from where the rubber meets the road. Along the way, I also received a diploma (B.A. Business Admin). Go figure. What is the connection? Also spent 2 years in the Philippines as a Finance and Marketing Advisor as per an agreement between the US and Philippines government. While in the Philippines, got a certificate as an Advanced and Rescue Diver from PADI ( 200 + dives in the Philippines). Sorry for blowing my… Read more »

Jay
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Jay

Hi Angkoldoy, Sounds like you would have been more qualified to write my article. Not new for me if I only wrote about things I was an expert in I would not really write much. I agree with what you said about peer pressure affecting following rules in the USA. Most fishermen follow the rules even though they are pretty much on the honor system. I disagree with your assessment that more money will lead to more demand for fish. I actually believe more money will increase demand on pork, chicken and possibly beef which tend to be more expensive.… Read more »

Denzil Browne
Guest

Great article. I have to wonder what will happen when fish populations decline not only here in the Philippines but all over the world. There are some countries that catch fish illegally in the territories of others and maybe we’ll see wars starting off due to this.

Jay
Guest
Jay

Hi Denzil,

Thanks for the comment and compliment! I actually think if Global Warming is real that it will result in more fish because of increased habitat created by flooding caused by the melting of the Polar icecaps. Global Warming can’t be all bad can it.

Peace

Jay

Mark Fulwell
Guest

Overfishing and the irresponsible use of dynamite has led to the destruction of coral reefs and diminution of fish stocks. Strict implementation of marine conservancy laws and the expansion of aquaculture is the only way forward.

Jay
Guest
Jay

Hi Mark,

Thanks for commenting I think I agree with you! Except I think cyanide fishing is a bigger threat than dynamite fishing. IDK.

Peace

Wally Barr
Guest

They do not have a DNR (Department of natural resources) police there like they do here in Maryland with enforcement.. They carry firearms and fine and arrest people all the time..the Philippines doesn’t have anything close to that.

Jay
Guest
Jay

Hi Wally,

Thanks for commenting! In NC we have game wardens, but in all honesty they are few and far between. Sounds like Maryland is a lot stricter. I do think most fishermen obey the regulations out of a sense of honor. Like I said in the article most fishermen in the USA are fishing for fun. In the Philippines a lot are fishing for their survival and the survival of their families. That kind of makes it hard to put a fish back in the water instead of your kids mouth.

Peace

Jay

Steve
Guest
Steve

Jay, interesting read. I know nothing about fishing but whenever I see all the little one person boats floating around between the islands, I have wondered if the fish can reproduce fast enough to meet the human demand. I think one of the best ways to determine if the situation is getting worse is to follow the price of the fish. If it’s going up, demand exceeds supply.

Jay
Guest
Jay

Hi Steve,

I fear the answer is that the fish cannot reproduce fast enough at least close to the Philippines. There are always more fish in the sea, but sometimes you have to go further from your home shore to find them. Thanks for commenting! I try to write interesting and keep boring to myself.

Peace

Jay

Norman
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Norman

Nothing new about this topic, its a problem world wide. It does not help if you have 9 children to feed. The number of children per family may be an easier problem to fix. I live near Cebu and I see for myself the size of the fish the locals eat. Mostly very small. This problem can only get worse without some decent action to fix it.

Jay
Guest
Jay

Hi Norman,

Big picture I agree with you overpopulation is a problem 9 kids per family is too much, but on a personal note my wife was #8 so I am glad Papa Leon and Mama did not quit at #7. I agree this is a serious problem with over fishing. Thanks for the comment and report from the situation where you are at in Cebu. I suspect in pretty much the whole Philippines all fish no matter how small are considered keepers.

Peace

Jay

ouel
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ouel

Jay, good article. I remember back in 1973 or 74 four of us AF guys went to Hundred Islands, Pangasinan, to fish. We only caught tiny fish (2-3 inches long). My buddies and I wanted to throw them back as they were too small but the boat owner kept them! This wasn’t fishing to us Americans so we had the bankero drop us off at a sari sari store on shore so we could drink beer. We told him to come back in 3-4 hours and pick us up. Drinking beer won over “fishing” that day.

Jay
Guest
Jay

Hi Ouel,

Thanks for the comment and compliment! Since your story dates back to 1973 and confirms that keeping even tiny fish is not a new behavior, I am not sure my theory is correct. Catching 2-3 inch fish is not much fun. My wife says her father caught bigger fish back when she was young which would have been around 1980 and there still were large fish in the Manga Market not long ago. Beer drinking and lying telling fish stories have been a big part of fishing for generations all over the world.

Peace

Jay

Gary
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Gary

In many seafood and Chinese restaurants in Metro Manila (and I imagine other large cities in the PHL) it is very common to see tanks of live Lapu Lapu (black grouper). Those fish were probably caught by cyanide fishing.

Jay
Guest
Jay

Hi Gary,

You are probably right. I had never even heard of cyanide fishing until I wrote this article, but apparently it actually is less stressful on the fish than catching by hook or net which surprised me same goes with electro fishing. Learn something new every day I guess.

Peace

Jay

Cordillera Cowboy
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Cordillera Cowboy

All of the above, I fear. Fishing, and hunting for that matter, as practiced in the Philippines is not sustainable. It will require a major shift in cultural attitude to change things for the better. The Maryland conservation officer who commented below, outlined what the fish populations are up against. In other developing countries where over hunting or poaching was a problem, nothing has worked until viable alternatives were in place for the local people who were either pot hunting to feed their families, or poaching endangered species for cash. As far as I can tell, nothing like that exists… Read more »

Jay
Guest
Jay

Hi Pete, Your assessment is pretty bleak, but probably accurate or close. I don’t have much first hand knowledge of the Philippines outside of Bohol, but I would think hunting to be even poorer than fishing. There did not seem to be much wild life to hunt. No deer, squirrels or rabbits that I saw. I wrote an article before about the scarcity of birds. I guess there are some remote areas where wildlife live, but I hope these few areas are regulated to protect the remaining species. I don’t think the fishing is quite as bad as you, but… Read more »

Cordillera Cowboy
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Cordillera Cowboy

We’re not terribly remote. We’re based in the provincial capitol, and our ranch is just outside of town. But farming is the primary occupation hereabouts. A naturalist friend of mine described the situation rather well. he said that, conservation wise, the Philippines is where the US was in the early 20th century. That is, the perception among most people is that anything that is not domestic, (as in farm animals) is to be eradicated as a pest, or hunted down for food. Birds are about the only thing left worth hunting here. When ever I mention that I like seeing… Read more »

Cordillera Cowboy
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Cordillera Cowboy

Hello Jay, We’re doing well. I typed out a long reply late last night, but I don’t see it here today. I’ll try again. We’re not so terribly remote, but we are inland. We’re based in the provincial capitol and our ranch is just outside of town. Still, farming is the primary occupation hereabouts. Hunting, like fishing, is largely unregulated here. Birds are about the only thing left to hunt. In living memory, there were deer and wild pigs. All hunted out now. The retired conservation officer who commented earlier outlined the situation facing fish and game here rather well.… Read more »

Jay
Guest
Jay

Hi Pete and Bob, I read your comment in my e-mail, Pete and I am not sure why it is not posting. It was a very good comment although it painted a bleak picture. I totally agree with you on hunting in the Philippines. I think hunting other than a few birds is almost non-exisistant due to lack of wildlife to hunt. In spite of the my article, I am not as pessimistic on fishing. I think fish will be available if one can get far enough from shore. Thank you for your comment! I got a lot from your… Read more »

Cordillera Cowboy
Guest
Cordillera Cowboy

Ok.. 3rd try. It shows up before the disqus loads. Here’s a quick copy and paste. Cordillera Cowboy Hello Jay, We’re doing well. I typed out a long reply late last night, but I don’t see it here today. I’ll try again. We’re not so terribly remote, but we are inland. We’re based in the provincial capitol and our ranch is just outside of town. Still, farming is the primary occupation hereabouts. Hunting, like fishing, is largely unregulated here. Birds are about the only thing left to hunt. In living memory, there were deer and wild pigs. All hunted out… Read more »

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