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FEATURE: Saving the sardine from warming seas

By Rhaydz B. Barcia

Couple Romeo de Luna, 62, and Elvira de Luna, 59, of Sitio Tambac, Maonon village in Ligao City survived daily through fishing within the Ticao-Burias Pass, the second-largest seascape in the Philippines.

The couple, both elementary graduates with two children, are living in the fishing village at Sitio Tambac, Maonon, Ligao City, and have been involved in fishing for more than 40 years.

Romeo said that he went home almost empty-handed in the last five years as fish continue to decline because of the increasing weather conditions and warming ocean.

“Forty years ago, fishing was profitable with a daily good catch. But these past few years, I went home almost empty-handed or went home with just a kilo of fish like “lawlaw” (sardines) and first-class fish. It is tremendously dwindling because of the hottest weather and warming seas. Oftentimes, we came home without a catch which hardly fed our family,” he said.

“We've noticed that the very warm and humid weather causes warming ocean, prompting the fish to go on the deeper part of the ocean which is difficult for us marginalized fisherfolk to go on to the high seas,” he narrated in the dialect as he and his wife Elvira sat on their boat under the tree.

He said that the changing and very humid weather started to affect them 10 years ago. The changing and now very humid weather is driving the fish away from the municipal waters.

“A few decades ago, the weather was not as warm and humid as today. We endured the sea for a long time and went home happily with 15 iced boxes full of a high-grade variety of fish including sardines after three hours in the 1970s to early 1990s. But in 2000, the sea temperature was different, rising and was getting warmer, driving away the fish near the shoreline,” he said.

He said that sardines and other varieties of fish are one of the important sources of their livelihood and survival in the countryside. To survive daily, they resorted to loan sharks, who lend at a 20 to 50 percent interest rates.

The Ticao-Burias Pass is home to lawlaw and high-grade fish species. Many Filipinos depend on fish not only for food but also for livelihood, making this one of the most important resources in achieving food security in the country.

Citing data from the Philippine Statistics Authority, Joyce Siera, Oceana communications manager, said that the usual catch of sardines locally called tamban declined from 442,045.75 metric tons in 2010 to 325,226.20 metric tons or a 26.4 percent decline in 2019.

Oceana, an international non-profit advocacy organization focused solely on ocean conservation, was founded in 2001.

Siera said GPS trackers were installed on fishing vessels operating in the Fisheries Management Area (FMA) 7 covering Bicol to Visayan seas and allowed the team to monitor fishing activities in the area over time.

This method has led the research team to discover that 60 percent of the total 60,000 metric tons caught in FMA-7 were from Bulan station along the Ticao-Burias Pass.

It said that fish caught in Bulan fall below the size of the first maturity. Many juveniles are caught in this area and there's a need to implement measures to reduce by regulating the fishing — the number of vessels, the frequency of catches, and when they are allowed to operate, Oceana said.

Oceana urged the government's fisheries agency and stakeholders to conduct a participatory process to address the challenges in managing its sardine stocks in the Bicol Region, part of the country's sardine-rich fisheries management area, in response to the incident of sardine spoilage in Bulan, Sorsogon.

The species composition in the waters of FMA 7 has significantly changed in the past two decades based on the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) data (2002-2020).

In 2002, the dominant marine product was seaweeds with 16% of the total landings followed by round scad (galunggong), 12%, Indian mackerel, 10%, and anchovies 6%. Small pelagics dominate the landings with about 50% of the total landings. Sardines only represent 8% of the total landings.

Pelagic fish range from small fish, such as herrings and sardines, to large fish like bluefin tuna. In 2010, the dominant marine harvest was still seaweeds at 24% followed by roundscad at 10%, fimbriated sardine at 10%, anchovies at 6%, and Bali sardines at 6%. About 50% of landings were still dominated by pelagics. Sardines, meanwhile, continued to increase in 2010 with 17% of the total landings.

Ten years later, the species composition in FMA 7 changed significantly with Bali sardines dominating at 25% of the total landings, followed by seaweeds now at only 16%, fimbriated sardines at 5%, and roundscad 5%. The pelagics still dominate the entire landings at about 53%.

Sardines contribute about 31% of the total landings. The significant change in the species composition is a serious impact on the biodiversity of marine life in FMA 7 with a clear impact of overfishing coupled with the possible effect of climate change causing the decrease of the species that were abundant two decades ago.

A study conducted by Oceana revealed sardine production has changed over the last decade. Due to this “Sagip Sardinas”, a nationwide campaign to promote sustainable production of sardines, was launched by Oceana Philippines and DA-BFAR in Bicol region and in Visayan region late last month to put in place a National Sardine Management Framework Plan (NSMFP).

The target is to come up with a science-based NSMFP by October for implementation next year. The NSMFP will serve as the country’s first sardine fisheries roadmap.

The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) Fisheries Situation Report noted a 13.5% reduction in the volume of production of fimbriated sardines (tunsoy), one of the major species with reported declines for the first quarter of 2022.

The PSA also reported a decline in all captured fisheries for the first quarter of 2022 from 973,622.41 metric tons (MT) a year ago, fisheries production volume in both commercial and municipal fisheries dipped to 971,500.80 MT from January to March this year.

The government attributed this to rising fuel costs and has also contributed to its push for fish importation.

In Bicol the provinces of Masbate, Sorsogon and Camarines Sur are still among the top 10 producers of sardines.

The Bicol region provides the second-highest production of tamban and tunsoy (sardines), next to Zamboanga Peninsula based on the 2019 Philippine Statistics Authority Report on the annual production (metric tons) of sardines.

There are 20 sardine’s species that were found in FMA 7, were lawlaw and alubaybay, tamban or tunsoy. Currently, there is only one cannery in Bicol and some LGUs do not allow sardine fishers to trade with larger canneries.

Based on Oceana’s assessment, the dwindling sardine stock was particularly noted in Balatan, Camarines Sur; Pio Duran, Albay; Monreal, Ticao Island; and the main station for fishing vessel operations in Bulan, Sorsogon.

In a study done by Oceana on the conditions of sardine stocks in Fisheries Management Area 7 (FMA 7) fishing grounds off Bicol and Samar from February 2020 to March 2021, it was revealed that “sardine stocks are overfished.”

The fishing grounds in the Philippines were Quezon, Bicol and Northern Samar; the Visayan Sea, Northern Sulu Sea, South Sulu Sea and Palawan.

Threatened species

Climate change and overfishing are fast catching up with these highly resilient species. “Even the fishes in canned sardines are getting smaller and smaller, a sign there is really a problem,” Gloria Estenzo Ramos, vice president of Oceana Philippines said.

While there is no sardine-supply shortage yet, the government and Oceana Philippines are moving to protect and conserve sardines, to ensure that they will not go extinct, an official of the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DA-BFAR) said.

According to the international advocacy group there is a need to enhance existing policies to prevent overfishing, allow fish stocks to repopulate and replenish the country’s fishing grounds.

Climate-change effect

Chemical Engr. Dominic Careo, health and safety officer of OCENR and Healthy Oceans and Clean Cities Initiative (HOCCI) project coordinator of Legazpi City explained that small fish species are affected by the rising sea temperature following anthropogenic activity.

Anthropogenic refers to changes in the environment caused directly or indirectly by human activity. Careo, also a professor of Bicol University College of Sciences in Legazpi, affirmed Romeo De Luna’s claim that the sea is warming due to climate change.

He said that greenhouse gases, (GHG) are the primary contributor of rising temperature as they trap the heat in the atmosphere.

Greenhouse gases are naturally occurring gases found in the earth’s atmosphere that have the ability of absorbing heat and bouncing it back the heat to the Earth to keep our planet warm. But too much GHG in the atmosphere can cause temperature rise which results in global warming. The greenhouse effect and the gases responsible for trapping heat at the surface of the earth are the greenhouse gases, he explained.

When asked how climate change and warming oceans contributed to the depletion of fish species, Engr. Careo explained that the ocean is the biggest carbon sink as it absorbs and sequesters the GHGs like carbon dioxide from human activities.

“This carbon dioxide when dissolved to the seas causes lower pH (hydrogen ion concentration) that causes acidity. If the climate change and rising sea temperature continues it will negatively affect the reproduction of up to 60 percent of all fish species in the future because of the so called GHGs as the surface of the earth including oceans, absorbs the heat in large quantity this will affect the fish species sensitive to temperature rise specifically the small fish,” Careo said

The warming ocean according to Careo will also affect the coral reefs through coral bleaching. When the coral reefs are destroyed the spawning ground of the fish to reproduce is affected. That’s why their population is depleting in the long run, he said.

“Since sardines are one of the species vulnerable to changes in sea temperature, chances are they will no longer grow. One of the indicators of the warming seas is the migration of fishes into the deeper portion of the ocean with cooler temperature,” Engr. Careo said.

Another thing, according to Careo, is that the fish and aquatic organisms need the so-called dissolved oxygen in the water to survive and to grow into full size. When the sea surface temperature is hotter the dissolved oxygen is thinner as this escapes to the atmosphere.

“Thinner or lesser dissolved oxygen meaning it threatens the survival of the smaller fish like sardines as they could no longer reach the fuller size due to lack of oxygen. This is the effect of climate change. Our ocean is getting warmer as it absorbs a large percentage of heat and the excessive heat and energy warms the ocean that leads to ocean acidification. As the ocean becomes more acidic it will be impacted to small fishes and even go extinct,” he explained.

He said saving small fish species under the warming ocean is critical for the future of protein and nutritional requirements of the Filipino people.

In a “Sea-surface temperature and thermal stress in the Coral Triangle over the past two decades” study in 2009 by scientists E.L. Peñaflor. W.J. Skirving, A.E. Strong, S.F. Heron, L.T. David, it said that the Indo-Pacific, includes the countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea are home to more than 500 species of corals.

Studies have also shown that the waters around Indonesia and the Philippines possess the highest reef fish endemic species and that the Philippines is also considered the global center of marine fish biodiversity.

Reports have shown, however, that species diversity and abundance in many parts of this region have been greatly threatened by both man-made and natural stresses.

The ‘IndoMalay-Philippines Archipelago’’ (Carpenter and Springer 2005), has become one of the most important target areas in marine biodiversity research. Studies highlighted the alarming decline in coral cover in this region including the effect of increasing sea surface temperature (SST) over recent years.

The effect of SST increase has a wide range of effects on the marine ecosystem. Studies have shown that warm temperature anomalies have led to a reduction in primary production and a decrease in fish catch.

Higher levels of thermal stress were observed in 1996–2006 as compared to 1985–1995. The dramatic increase in the levels of thermal stress during the 1996–2006 period may have been linked to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) reversal in the late 1990s.

The PDO refers to the interdecadal (2–3 decades) oscillation of Pacific Ocean temperatures between warm and cold phases. Further analysis was performed on the data from the five years with the highest percentages of reef pixels with DHW C 4: 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2005.

These years are concurrent with the La Niña events with the exception of 2005, which is an ENSO-neutral year. 2005 is currently the warmest year on record based on global temperature averages. Similarly, level of thermal stress has been observed to indicate significant bleaching in corals.

The year 1998, when a very strong La Niña occurred, again thermal stress stands out with the highest number of clusters showing bleaching-level stress. This further supports the occurrence of widespread bleaching in many parts of the CT in 1998. Noticeably, clusters 5 and 6 in the northernmost Philippines are the most impacted during the occurrence of a very strong La Niña.

Protect Ticao-Burias Pass

To protect the Philippines second biggest seascape, former Albay 3rd district Representative now Ligao City Mayor Fernando Gonzalez filed a bill declaring the Ticao-Burias Pass as a protected seascape. The move was supported by two other lawmakers from Bicol representing areas covering the vital inland seas of the region.

Reps. Ma. Vida Bravo and Evelyn Escudero of the 1st districts of Masbate and Sorsogon have co-authored the bill seeking the declaration of Ticao-Burias Pass as a Marine Protected Area (MPA) under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS).

Bravo’s representation covers six municipalities—San Fernando, San Jacinto, Monreal, Batuan of Ticao Island and Claveria and San Pascual of Burias Island, all along the two waters; while the Sorsogon towns of Donsol, Pilar and Castilla that sit along the northern coastline of Ticao Pass belong to Escudero’s district.

Gonzalez’s district covering the Albay west coast localities of Libon, Oas, Pioduran, Jovellar shares maritime boundaries with the two Burias Island towns.

Gonzalez's move is to save the Burias-Ticao Pass to be declared a Marine Protected Area or a protected seascape to save and preserve its great marine diversity threatened by unabated illegal activities and climate change impact by protecting corals.

These waters are home to Tamban locally called “lawlaw” (sardines) whale sharks, manta rays, dugong and various kinds of sea turtle, and lately discovered to be a habitat of the globally rare megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) -- which are all considered endangered marine species.

The entire seascape covers an area of 414,244 hectares serving as fishing ground for a total population of 93,943 coastal villagers, 41.4 percent of them languishing in poverty as reported last year by the National Statistics Coordination Board of the Philippine Statistics Authority.

The primary concern of the coalition is the huge fishing ground covering Ticao-Burias Pass rich coastal resources threatened by human pressures, including overexploitation, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, as well as unsustainable aquaculture practices, marine pollution, habitat destruction, climate change and ocean acidification.

Protected seascapes, Gonzalez explained, are among sites of national significance characterized by the harmonious interaction of man and ocean while providing opportunities for the public as showcases for climate change adaptation measures to combat the effect of global warming.

Rep. Fernando E. Cabredo on the other hand said that coastal communities have inevitable growth of population which require more fish requirement consumption and fishing activities.

“To provide alternative livelihood aside from fishing we provide alternative sources of living through tourism, mangrove reforestation and agriculture as alternative sources,” the lawmaker said.

Restore fish stocks

Oceana, Philippines said there is a compelling urgency for stakeholders to work together to sustainably manage this commercially important and cheap protein source for many Filipinos.

To help restore the fish stocks, there is a need to protect the municipal water, hosts the coral reefs, sea grass and mangroves – the shelter and spawning ground of fish that should be protected as mandated by the existing fisheries and environmental laws.

Oceana gives unsolicited advice to the Marcos administration — stop fish importation, prosecute commercial fishers encroaching municipal waters and exact implementation of the management plan for participatory and science-based fisheries management in Fisheries Management Areas (FMAs), a policy reform under FAO 263 which delineated the country’s fisheries into 12 areas and which if fully implemented will rebuild Philippines fisheries.

The country’s marine resources should be prioritized as an integral source of nutrition for the Filipino people, but these continue to degrade because of lack of political will to fully implement the fisheries laws and the reforms initiated by the decision-makers.

The strict implementation of the Fisheries Code, as amended which mandates the protection of the 15-kilometer municipal waters from commercial fishing operations. Oceana believes that by adopting a science-based strategy, local sardines will continue to thrive, support other marine wildlife and feed the world at the same time.

Husband and wife Romeo De Luna, 62, and Elvira De Luna, 59, of Sitio Tambac, Maonon village in Ligao City survived daily through fishing within the Ticao-Burias Pass, the second-largest seascape in the Philippines. For 40 years of fishing, Romeo said that he went home almost empty handed in the last five years as fish continue to decline due to the warming ocean. (Rhaydz B. Barcia)

Note: This story was produced with the support of DW Akademie, German Federal Foreign Office in cooperation of Climate Change Commission of the Philippines. Rhaydz Barcia is a journalism fellow DW Akademie (Deutsche Welle), Federal Republic of Germany and Climate Change Commission of the Philippines under the framework project “Covering the Climate: Qualification of environmental journalists in the Philippines.”


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