Seven commercial fishing vessels have been apprehended in the sea of Masbate province, a few days after an international advocacy organization for the ocean alerted concerned local government units (LGU) of the possible presence of commercial vessels engaged in illegal fishing activities in their municipal waters.
In two separate seaborne operations on Apr. 4 and 12, two commercial fishing vessels and another five, respectively, were caught fishing near Templo Island in San Pascual town.
The latter "were detected at a distance of approximately seven to nine kilometers off the island in the act of using purse seine fishing net and superlight between 5:00 to 6:00 o'clock in the morning," according to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), the agency that led the operation together with the Regional Law Enforcement Coordinating Council (RLECC).
In a report by Oceana Philippines, 72 of the 500 possible commercial vessels detected from March 22-28 in the country's municipal waters were in Masbate. That is twice the 37 weekly average number of commercial fishing vessels detected in 2019 in Milagros town of the same province.
Oceana’s detection method uses the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, which detects lure lights that commercial fishing vessels use when they catch fish at night.
"The figures showed that the threats to the ocean continue unabated with commercial fishing intrusion in the municipal waters still happening," said lawyer Gloria Estenzo Ramos, Oceana vice president.
Under existing laws, commercial fishing boats are prohibited from entering the municipal waters (15-kilometers from the shoreline) to protect spawning grounds, its juvenile inhabitants, and for fisheries to recover periodically.
The five vessels that were apprehended had a total of 57 crews and a catch of 161 tubs of fishes, ranging from roundscads, mackerels, and tuna.
The other two, one of which is registered as a catcher but utilized as a carrier, and the other one, is unlicensed and owned by a Quezon province resident, respectively. Criminal cases for illegal fishing have been filed against the personnel of the fishing vessels who were arrested.
Oceana lauded authorities for enforcing the country’s fisheries laws amid the crisis.
However, Lakas ng Maliliit na Mangingisda sa Bicol (Lambat-Bicol) called for vigilance among fisherfolk, since these cases may be dismissed through bribery, if not due to loopholes in existing fishery laws.
In 2015, it was reported that "Illegal fishing in the country's richest fishing grounds, the Burias Pass-Acid Gulf water area near Masbate province, is a source of funds not only of big-time commercial fishers but also politicians," according to then Chief Supt. Victor Deona, Philippine National Police Bicol regional director.
The presence of commercial fishing vessels in Ragay Gulf ,which covers Masbate, Sorsogon, Albay, Camarines Sur, and Quezon has been a challenge for Bicolano fishers, not only during the ECQ, Lambat Bicol said.
Elwin Mangampo, Lambat-Bicol chairman, said now is a catching season in Pio Duran in Albay, and they are allowed to fish as long as they practice physical distancing.
"But the big vessels that fish within the Ragay Gulf take most of the catches leaving little among us small fishers," he said.
According to Environmental Justice Atlas, "Decades of illegal fishing practices have decimated fish populations in Bicol," adding that where "small-scale fishermen using traditional methods used to be able to easily catch more than 10 kg of fish per day in the 1950s, they now find at most 5 kg per day, many days much less."
Mangampo said on Apr.24, fishers from Oas reported spotting “taksay” (ring net) boat in barangay Cagmanaba. "These are illegal because they use superlight and fine mesh nets with active gear," he said.
Ramos said, "While national and local government agencies are busy performing frontline duties to combat the Covid-19 crisis, some commercial fishing operators are exploiting it as an opportunity to violate the law."
On the list of top five areas with presumably fishing vessels detected in municipal waters next to Milagros in Masbate were Tongkil, Sulu; Cuyo, Palawan; Zamboanga City; and San Jose, Occidental Mindoro.
In 2013 only 627 illegal fish poachers were arrested; but soon after the murder of Sagñay Tuna Fishers Association secretary Gerlie Alpajora in 2015, police and Bantay Dagat groups arrested at least 2,698 illegal fishing suspects and confiscated 64 commercial fishing vessels poaching in restricted areas. 2,027 of those suspects were charged, found guilty by the courts and were sent to jail.
On Jan. 7, 2020, BFAR revoked the license of a commercial fishing vessel that repeatedly violated fishing laws. It was the first time in Philippines history, thanks to continued activist pressure, the Environmental Justice Atlas said.
Oceana also urged BFAR to uphold RA 10654, which amended the Philippine Fisheries Code, by installing a tracking device on all commercial vessels so their movement can be monitored, especially because VIIRS cannot detect big fishing vessels during day time.