TaDi Snap Shots

Friday, July 17, 2015

Bicol's Big Fish is Back!


Late afternoon and we’re holed up in a hut along the coast of Tiwi in Albay, trading fish tales and waiting for fishermen to return. Sitting around us are their wives, mending nets and eyeing the swelling crowd of kids cajoling in the surf. This time of year, highly-prized bankulis or yellowfin tuna pass through Albay by the thousands.

Bankulis or yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) are the most highly-prized fish in Bicol's Lagonoy Gulf. A fisher shows off a 39-kilogramme fish. A decade ago, golden-finned bankulis were much larger. (Gregg Yan / WWF)

The first of the outrigger bancas arrive, unloading a decent haul of pundahan or skipjack – small, striped tuna which have proven surprisingly resilient to commercial fishing. Bancas two and three return empty-handed while a fourth disgorges a tub of galunggong or scad. Few yellowfin tuna are landed.

“The Lagonoy Gulf is the Bicol region’s richest tuna site – but it is heavily overfished,” explains BFAR National Stock Assessment Project Head Virginia Olaño. “Two decades ago, fishers regularly caught large yellowfin. In 1998, a fisherman landed a 196 kilogramme giant, long as a car and fat as a drum. Now yields are waning and yellowfin average just 18 to 35 kilogrammes – meaning juveniles have replaced adults.”

A fisherman returns from a successful trip in Tiwi. Circular tuna handline reels ensure that fishers catch just one fish at a time - an alternative to bag-nets which cordon off entire fish schools and long-lines with up to 3000 dangling hooks. (Gregg Yan / WWF)

Though yellowfin tuna are economically-valuable, they’re far more than just seafood. Top predators in the marine food chain, they maintain the balance between oceanic predators and prey. “Today the Lagonoy Gulf’s most common fish are anchovies,” warns Olaño. “There aren’t enough predators to eat them – because we’ve eaten most of their predators.”

Gulf-wide Meeting of Tuna Fishers

To stop overfishing and help manage existing tuna stocks in Bicol, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), plus the Philippine Council for Agriculture and Fisheries (PCAF) convened the first meeting of the Gulf of Lagonoy Tuna Fishers Federation (GLTFF), comprised of the coastal municipalities ringing the Lagonoy Gulf – 3070-square kilometres of sea separating the Bicol mainland from the storm-swept island of Catanduanes. Over 500 people attended Bicol’s first large-scale gathering of fishers, held at the Lagman Auditorium of Bicol University’s Tabaco Campus last June.

“We’ve waited three years to formalize this federation, which covers 2000 tuna fishers in the Lagonoy Gulf,” says BFAR Assistant Regional Director Marjurie Grutas. “GLTFF aims to synergize fisheries management while optimizing cooperation, knowledge-sharing and enforcement. We aim to eliminate illegal fishing, minimize the capture of juvenile tuna and drive commercial fishers away from municipal waters – the three leading causes of overfishing.”

Sigil of a jumping bankulis or yellowfin tuna adorns this little boy’s family boat. His future might very well depend on whether WWF’s work keeps these oceanic giants jumping. (Gregg Yan / WWF)

Since 2011, WWF has been working to enhance yellowfin tuna management practices for 5000 fishers in 112 tuna fishing villages around the Lagonoy Gulf and the coast of Occidental Mindoro.

WWF’s Public Private Partnership Programme Towards Sustainable Tuna (PPTST) has since organized tuna fishing associations in all 15 municipalities in the Lagonoy Gulf, plus six LGUs in the Mindoro Strait. It spearheaded the registration and licensing of tuna fishers, vessels and gear to minimize bycatch and illegal fishing, deployed 1000 plastic tuna tags to make the fishery traceable, and completed a series of training sessions on proper tuna handling to ensure that exported tuna continually meet international quality standards.

PPTST harnesses market power and consumer demand to promote sustainably-caught tuna and support low-impact fishing methods like artisanal fishing with hand-line reels – better alternatives to commercial tuna long-lines, which stretch up to 80 kilometres and are rigged with up to 3000 baited hooks.

Fisherman hauling a 30-kilogramme yellowfin tuna in Albay. The giant fish are processed and exported to a host of international destinations. (Gregg Yan / WWF)

Funded by Coop, Bell Seafood, Seafresh and the German Investment and Development Corporation, PPTST involves European seafood companies plus their local suppliers, BFAR, local government units in the Bicol Region and Mindoro, the WWF Coral Triangle Programme, WWF-Germany plus WWF-Philippines.

Today about 52% of the country’s fish exports come from tuna, which buoys the lives and livelihoods of millions of Filipinos. WWF’s Global Oceans Campaign, Sustain Our Seas, builds on decades of work to rekindle the health and productivity of the Earth’s oceans.

“By working to conserve their shared resource, Lagonoy Gulf’s fishers might someday herald the return of the big fish,” says WWF’s Joann Binondo. Now that fish tale should be worth the wait.

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