Fewer fish means farther fishing

Seafood traceability initially emerged as a food safety tool to enable product recalls. However, the overexploitation of fish stocks led governments and industry players to seek better control of what was caught and where. Over the past two decades tracking and monitoring systems have been deployed on fishing vessels to deter the illegal harvesting of seafood.

Marine fishery resources have been on a continuous decline since the 1970s, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Back then, 90 percent of fish stocks were fished within biologically sustainable levels, but that percentage slipped to just under 70 in 2015, according to the organization’s annual report, “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture,” for 2018 [pdf]. The situation is even worse for tuna: only 57 percent of stocks of the seven main targeted species were fished within biologically sustainable levels in 2015. In the Asia-Pacific region, scientists with the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned that exploitable fish stocks will be gone by 2048 “if current fishing practices continue.”

Raul Gonzalez is the spokesperson for the Alliance of Tuna Handliners in the city of General Santos. He also owns several handline boats. Image by Biel Calderon.

One particularly controversial practice is the use of fish aggregating devices, or FADs, artificial shelters that attract fish and make it possible to catch large quantities easily. FADs are seen as a major contributor to declining global tuna stocks.

“Before there was always a good catch, always plenty of tuna nearby but when these FADs were introduced and there was an over-deployment of FADs, these municipal fishermen had to go further away,” said Raul Gonzalez, spokesperson for the Alliance of Tuna Handliners in General Santos. “This [fish decline] entails costs and also longer periods of fishing and also the dangers that are inherent in this kind of fishing operation.” However, tuna populations in the area have improved slightly over the past five years after neighboring Indonesia reined in the use of FADs in its waters, Gonzalez said.

Harry Bibat hasn’t noticed a big increase in the tuna populations yet and is traveling farther out to sea than ever to pursue them. But he does feel safer at sea, thanks to the transponder. Maylene sends him information about weather conditions and gives him advice about where to fish or when it would be advisable to return to port through the application. The transponder allows Harry to check his wife’s messages with his mobile phone and answer them through chat and SMS services.

“That time I got lost because of heavy wind and huge waves, this won’t happen again if I have a transponder because there’s a system that can send information if there’s a calamity and I’m already aware and prepared,” he said. “I feel safe and confident during the fishing trip.”

Roger Tuasic, 59, recently installed a FAME tracking system on his fishing boat. Image by Biel Calderon.

Roger Tuasic has a different hope for the new transponder on his boat: that it will keep him and his son out of jail. The scarcity of fish has also pushed Tuasic to venture farther out to sea and, sometimes, to cross the maritime border with Indonesia. Tuasic, who was caught seven times in the past while working on a big fishing vessel but always quickly released, said that Indonesian authorities have become stricter. They jailed his son for two-and-a-half years the last time he was arrested, Tuasic said. “This is why I decided to use small fishing boats and fish locally, even though it does not provide sufficiently for my family,” he said.

But the risk remains because fishermen in small boats can also cross the border accidentally without devices to determine their exact location. “We can also see … how much fish they have caught and if it is big or small tuna” before the boat reaches shore, said his wife, Adelaida.

Out of reach of small-scale fishermen

After years working in a canning plant seven days a week for a meager salary, Jason Albasi thought the way to make ends meet was to buy a tuna handliner. He had learned the job from his father and heard that a single big tuna could sell for 60,000 pesos, nearly $1,200, at the port in General Santos — five times his monthly salary at the canning plant.

But it didn’t turn out to be that easy. With the decline of the tuna stocks, fishing also became more expensive. “One-third of the income goes to cover the trip expenses, such as fuel or the ice to preserve the tuna,” Albasi said. Once ashore he also has to pay the crew. In the end, there’s little left in his pocket.

Entrance of the port in General Santos, the so-called tuna capital of the Philippines. Image by Biel Calderon.
Fishermen prepare nets at port in General Santos, Philippines. Image by Biel Calderon.

The traceability requirements only increased the burden. In 2014, the Philippine government began requiring fishing vessels to carry a vessel monitoring mechanism (VMM), a device that records their movements to discourage or penalize illegal fishing. The requirement does not yet apply to small-scale boats less than 30 gross tons, but it likely will in coming years.

Some markets, like the tuna industry, are also increasingly demanding that each fish comes with data on where and when it was caught, mostly through electronic catch documentation and traceability (eCDT) technologies that send the information to the cloud so buyers can access it. “Right now, it is not required by law but I know they will ask us soon,” said Albasi.

VMM and eCDT systems can cost hundreds of dollars a month in subscription charges — unaffordable for small-scale fishermen like Albasi or Bibat. The traceability systems also often entail complicated bureaucratic tasks that fishermen, who are sometimes illiterate, can find difficult to complete. Yet small-scale fisheries account for more than 90 percent of the world’s fishing workforce and produce around half of global catches, according to the FAO. So bringing them on board is essential for traceability initiatives to work.

Filipino engineer Arcelio Fetizanan Jr. identified that gap and figured out how to simplify the complex tracking systems used by aircrafts and large vessels so small-scale fishermen could also benefit from them. “What we are doing is to actually make it easier also for the [small-scale] fishermen” to comply with the regulations, Fetizanan said.

With his Manila-based company, Futuristic Aviation and Maritime Enterprise (FAME), Fetizanan developed a transponder that uses radio frequency cards that automatically register location and time data for each catch and create an ID for each fish. “We put [a card] on the tuna, normally … on the fin, so we can actually monitor and trace where it was caught and how it was caught,” Fetizanan said.

Technicians at FAME, a Manila-based technology provider, work on a transponder that is helping small-scale fishermen in the Philippines comply with the country’s new vessel-tracking regulations as well as stay in touch with their families while they’re at sea. Arcelio Fetizanan Jr., standing, is FAME’s CEO. Image by Biel Calderon.
One of FAME’s new vessel and fish-catch tracking transponders. Image by Biel Calderon.

The technology not only enables fishers to easily comply with vessel tracking regulations, it also simplifies the paper-based catch documentation systems that most small-scale fishermen still use in the Philippines. “They don’t need to write something on paper or on mobile, just with tapping [the card against the transponder] they are already complying with the regulations,” Fetizanan said.

FAME has also reduced the cost of the subscription to 800 pesos a month, around $185 a year. Even so, without being sure they could get a premium price for their fish if they used the technology, local fishers deemed the investment too risky. They could only afford it with a special subsidy from the USAID Oceans and Fisheries Partnership, which so far has covered one year’s subscription fees for 26 General Santos fishers, including Bibat, Tuasic and Albasi. It has also equipped local governments with small offices for tracking vessel locations and data.

“Seafood is no longer an unlimited, promised resource. Without action against IUU [illegal, unreported, unregulated] fishing, U.S. consumers’ continued access to the proteins they rely on is not guaranteed,” said Jeffrey Spence, the acting director of USAID’s regional development mission for Asia, in an email, by way of explaining the U.S.’s interest in encouraging the use of this technology. The U.S. is the world’s second-largest seafood importer and imports more than 90 percent of the seafood consumed there.

Workers carry a yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) at the port in General Santos. Image by Biel Calderon.

To Harry Bibat’s relief, the FAME transponder on his boat is also equipped with an emergency button that he and his crew can press if they find themselves in trouble. “When they click, it automatically sends different signals to the cloud giving them the assurance that someone knows that they have a problem,” Fetizanan said.

That button is one of Maylene’s favorite features. “If Harry presses it, we can call the coast guard to go rescue them. In addition, since the boat is being tracked, it is easy to find them. Before it could take days,” she said. In spite of all the fancy devices Maylene and Harry Bibat now use, the entrance of their house is still well guarded by an elaborate Catholic altar presided over by an image of the Virgin Mary. “The device might help,” Maylene said, “but God sees everything.”

Harry and Maylene Bibat pose for a photo with their young daughter. The system for tracking his vessel and tuna catches that Harry recently installed on his boat lets his family alert him about incoming storms and other dangers. Image by Biel Calderon.

Banner image: Harry Bibat, a 36 year-old fisherman from General Santos, the Philippines, poses for a photo. Harry has been fishing for more than 25 years, but his trips have become more dangerous in recent years as they’ve grown longer and taken him further out to sea in pursuit of scarce tuna. Image by Biel Calderon.

Laura Villadiego is a freelance journalist specializing in human rights, labor issues and the environment. Based in Thailand, she has been covering Southeast Asia since 2009.

Editor’s note: A distinct Spanish-language version of this story appeared in La Marea in May.

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Article published by Rebecca Kessler
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