Fishing For a Fight or Better Economic Well-being?

Higher fisheries yield in and lower poverty incidence among frontline provinces facing the West Philippine Sea (WPS) or the South China Sea (SCS) defy the portrayal of state abandonment of the Filipino fisherfolk. New opportunities in aquaculture and marine ecotourism also hold promise. Growth in other sectors, such as manufacturing and services are also providing high-paying alternatives from this humble livelihood. All these suggest that the lot of common fisherfolk in the country’s western seaboard is improving, although much remains to be done.

Filipino fisherfolk are traditionally among the poorest in the country, an irony given the bounty of the country’s vast living marine resources. In September 2016, Sen. Francis Pangilinan reported that the average fisherman earns P178 per day, with over 43 percent of the estimated 1.7 million fisherfolk under the poverty line. It is a generational tragedy that undercuts the country’s food security and checks the development of the fisheries sector, including its exports. Many of the problems are structural and deep-seated. Decades of failure to improve fishing technologies and techniques, destructive dynamite fishing, weak state support and related infrastructure and absence of a strong domestic fishing lobby are among the factors that affected the development of the fisheries sector.

While our neighboring countries have over the years invested in building sturdier and more seaworthy fishing vessels, our country’s fishing fleet changed little. This problem is most acute among small-scale artisanal fishermen. While our neighbors have gone as far as organizing and providing training to their fisherfolk, offering communication and safety equipment and fuel subsidy, our fishermen remained below the radar for decades. Hardly reported by mainstream media, according to Masinloc Mayor Arsenia Lim, it was only under the Duterte government when the fisherfolk received substantial assistances: 65 units of 30-footer fishing boats to 130 families in 2016, another 20-footer fishing boats to 100 beneficiaries in 2017 and, at present, already delivering 10 38-foot big vessels for fishermen regularly heading out to Scarborough. Ironically the interview was done by ABS-CBN but only a small part was broadcast on its channel. It took blogger “Judea” to publish the interview in length (

While we talk of modernizing our Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard, few have talked about modernizing our fishing fleets, our fishports, cold-storage facilities and related logistical infrastructure. In the contested SCS, our fellow claimants develop their fishing capacity alongside their maritime defense capabilities. And we wonder why we encounter more Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen! These countries have done and continue to do their homework. Not to mention that Vietnam has occupied the most number of features, built more outposts in the disputed sea than any other claimant and are the most frequent poachers in Philippine coast as reported by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, or that China had constructed massive artificial islands. These dual-use structures offered way stations and sanctuary for their distant fishing operations. In turn, it gave them the edge in accessing areas they long considered as their traditional fishing grounds.

Meanwhile, we envy their modern fishing vessels and rightly resent their incursions in our exclusive economic zone. We are quick to charge these vessels as part of China’s fishing militias, which Vietnam also have. But have we not thought of enlisting our own fishermen to serve as our eyes and ears on the ground before and just begrudge that our neighbors acted on the idea while we did not? We rightly should protest the presence of foreign illegal fishing in our EEZ in violation of our sovereign rights. But so long as our fishing vessels remain as they were for decades, should we expect ourselves to compete with more efficient peers backed up by modern patrol ships as they fish in the flashpoint?

“There is a peaceful co-existence between Filipino and Chinese fishermen at the shoal, and we hoped that the tension in the West Philippine Sea would not further escalate,” Eric Naboa, said in an Inquirer news report. He heads the Cato Infanta Fishermen’s Association that has around 100 members, most of whom are small boat owners. This and real stories from the ground directly contradict headline-grabbing stories that conjure images of our fishermen being neglected by the government. But while isolated incidents do take place and should be properly addressed, the reality is better than how it is being portrayed in the media.

Across-the-board, poverty incidence among the country’s fisherfolk declined from 36.9 percent in 2015 to 26.2 percent in 2018. Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) show that Region 3 or Central Luzon, which includes frontline WPS provinces like Zambales and Bataan, saw poverty incidence decrease from 26.8 percent to 15.3 percent. Similarly, Region 4B, which includes WPS coastal provinces like Occidental Mindoro and Palawan, saw a similar decrease from 24.5 percent to 14.7 percent in the same period.

Furthermore, from 2017 to 2019, maritime provinces bordering the WPS posted higher commercial and municipal fisheries yield. PSA figures show an increase in the volume of commercial fisheries production in Ilocos Sur, La Union, Pangasinan and Zambales. A similar spike was also registered for municipal fisheries production in the Ilocos provinces, La Union, Bataan, Zambales, Occidental Mindoro and Palawan. This is in stark contrast to declining volumes of both commercial and municipal fisheries yield in Ilocos, La Union and Palawan between 2013 and 2015. A similar downward trend in municipal and commercial fisheries production was also registered in Ilocos Sur, La Union, Pangasinan, Bataan, Zambales, Occidental Mindoro and Palawan from 2010 to 2012.

Several factors may have played a role in the improved fortunes of Filipino fishermen. The ability to access Scarborough Shoal once again since 2016 may be one. This especially benefited fishermen from western Luzon who reported record catches upon returning. Filipino fishers may have also benefited inadvertently from China’s fishing ban, which helped replenish fish stocks since taking effect in 1999. Notwithstanding China’s growing enforcement capacity, Filipino fishers continue to fish with little reported trouble and which the Duterte administration encourages them to do so.

The growth in tourism also saw fishermen shifting as tourist guides, bantay dagat (village sea watchers) or entrepreneurs setting up retail or souvenir shops or offering homestay inns. The growing number of tourists eager to get up close to a whale shark or dive to marvel at the country’s rich and colorful undersea wealth creates enormous opportunities. This has been seen in Cebu, Bohol and Palawan and can be replicated elsewhere in the archipelago. The reopening of tourism and air travel post-pandemic will surely give this budding sector a big boost. Moreover, the lure of better work opportunities outside the fishing sector also appeals to educated children of fishermen,  a phenomenon also seen among sons and daughters of many farmers.

In sum, the changing fortunes of the Filipino fisherfolk owe much to the country’s economic growth in recent years and new opportunities it unleashed. Overall, the persistence of maritime disputes has marginal effect in this evolution. Instead, better economic pursuits being opened are driving fisherfolk and their kin to explore new ways to improve their lot.

Mario Ferdinand Pasion is a political analyst, director of economic alliance Phil-Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Strategic Studies, and the chairman of Nat-Fil (Nationalist Filipinos Against Foreign Intervention).

Also published in Manila Times on May 23, 2021 We welcome logical feedback and possibly working together with compatible frameworks (

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