Guest Commentary by Alfredo Coro II
When the Philippine government decided to impose community quarantine in mid-March due to the Covid19 pandemic, small fishers were among the sectors that voiced immediate concern. Considered the poorest sector due to their reliance on natural resources for their livelihood, small-scale fishers are confined to coastal areas and have to go out to sea almost daily to provide sustenance for their families and to earn a decent income. Due to the public health emergency, fishers initially faced severe limitations, with Coast Guard personnel restricting the movement of fishing vessels.
Fortunately, the Department of Agriculture recognized the critical role of farmers and fishers in providing food for the country’s 110 million people. On March 25, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) approved the proposal to consider the two sectors as “food security frontliners” that are crucial in the production chain.
The economic downturn and border closures resulting from the lockdown had a severe impact on fishers, however, as their markets dried up. With most restaurants and tourist resorts closed, and many daily wage earners losing their jobs, the prices of fish went down due to the absence of commercial and even household buyers. An article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer quoted a fisherman in Gigantes Island in the Visayan Sea, one of the country’s richest fishing areas, as saying that the price for a 40-kilo tub of fish went down from P6,000 to a low of P1,000 since the quarantine was imposed.
Because of the low prices, some fishers in the island of Siargao, a popular tourist destination that has seen resort closures since the pandemic, opted to stop going out to sea. However, they were replaced by other residents who lost their means of livelihood such as pedicab drivers and construction workers.
Transport difficulties also disrupted the fisheries supply chain, despite the creation of Food Lanes and issuance of Food Passes that would allow the smooth flow of food supplies. In the early days of the lockdown, trucks getting stuck at checkpoints became a common sight in metropolitan areas, due to confusing guidelines that prevented drivers from bringing seafood from provincial fish ports to city markets. According to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, fish stocks piled up in cold storage while fish exports could not move due to port congestion. In far-flung areas, some fishers also reported difficulties in securing ice to preserve their fish catch.
With many law enforcers mobilized to implement lockdown guidelines, illegal fishers took advantage of the Covid19 crisis to use prohibited gear or enter marine protected areas that had been declared as no-take zones for marine life. The fisheries bureau reported that the most common violation among commercial fishers was the use of the modified Danish Seine, which is banned in Philippine waters. Others use fine mesh nets or gather prohibited species in municipal fishing grounds. At the Siargao Protected Landscapes and Seascapes, key personnel who are based in mainland Mindanao could not enforce the law due to travel restrictions.
In Indonesia, the Traditional Fisherfolk Union (DPP KNTI) conducted a survey in early April to find out the impact of the pandemic on small-scale fishers, who comprise about 97 percent of the total number of fishers in the country. The group reported that most coastal regions reported a significant decline in fish prices, as fish traders limited their purchases and destination countries for exports imposed a lockdown. To survive, many fishers used up their savings to meet daily needs or were forced to borrow money.
Assistance for fishers
In response to the adverse impact of the pandemic on people’s livelihood, the Philippine government came up with various programs to ease the burden among families, including fishing communities. However, some fishers have complained that they are not prioritized in the distribution of social amelioration funds. Others say the requirements for availing of livelihood assistance for displaced workers are too cumbersome for a minimal amount of P5,000 to P8,000 per family.
Coastal municipalities in Siargao that are part of the Fish Forever campaign benefited from an updated registry of fishers, which proved useful in validating the identity of beneficiaries for government assistance. Fishing communities that organized savings clubs continued their weekly deposits, realizing the value of financial resilience when a crisis such as the Covid19 pandemic hits households. Fishers’ organizations guarded their fish sanctuaries closely, knowing that the future of their fisheries is dependent on the conservation of local resources.
To solve supply chain problems, local governments have been encouraged to provide transportation for fishers or buy their fish catch and include them in food relief packages distributed to households affected by the lockdown. Community fish landing centers in the municipalities could be utilized as ice production and cold storage facilities.
With the easing of quarantine restrictions, the government could provide supplemental livelihood such as cash-for-work programs for activities like mangrove planting, and honorarium for fishers that help enforce fisheries laws.
The author is the Vice Mayor of the Municipality of Del Carmen in the island of Siargao in Surigao del Norte, one of the Fish Forever project sites in the Philippines. This case study was commissioned by the Equity Initiative and co-written with a team from Rare Philippines. (rare)