IF WITHIN five to ten years from now you won’t see fi sh anymore in your plate or restaurant menus, don’t be surprised. Blame the current surging population for that.
Currently, the Philippines is home to 100 million people. “About 62 percent of the population lives in the coastal zone,” says the Philippine Environment Monitor published by the World Bank.
The Philippines has one of the highest population growth rates in the world, with an average annual rate of increase of 2.75 percent during the last century.
Estimates show that if the present rapid population growth and declining trend in fish production continue, only a few kilograms of fish will be available per Filipino per year in the coming years, as opposed to 28.5 kilograms per year in 2003.
“Without any change in fish consumption and no active human population management program,” the World Bank report warns, “domestic demand for fish will reach 3.2 billion kilograms by 2020, given the projected population growth rate of the country.”
If increased demand is met solely by marine capture fisheries, such increased pressure on the fisheries sector could lead to an eventual collapse of fisheries and the fishing industry, which employs more than one million people (about 5 percent of the national labor force).
“All fisheries are showing decline in total catch and per unit effort (total number of fish caught per unit of time) despite increasing effort,” the World Bank report notes. “Fish are harvested at a level 30 to 50 percent higher than the natural production capacity.”
The Philippines is among the largest fish producers in the world, the World Bank report states. The commercial, municipal, and aquaculture fisheries account for 36, 30, and 24 percent of the total fisheries yield, respectively.
Its annual total fisheries yield is estimated to be worth around US$70 to UD$110 billion (equivalent to about 2-4 percent of the country’s gross domestic production over the years).
A report from the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS) said that the total volume of fisheries production increased by 9.67 percent during the third quarter of 2007 over the same quarter in 2006.
Even if the government can check the current population growth, there’s one problem that cannot be solved by the country alone: global warming. “We still have enough fish now but with global warming we may have problems in the next five to ten years unless we do something about it,” warns Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, former executive director of the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development (PCAMRD).
This has been confirmed by a recent report released by the United Nations. “At least three quarters of the globe’s key fishing grounds may become seriously impacted by changes in circulation as a result of the ocean’s natural pumping systems fading and falling,” the UN report suggests.
Global warming refers to an increase in average global temperatures, as a result of too much greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This, in turn, results to climate change. Marine species are not spared from the threats caused by rising temperatures.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration physicist Josefino Comiso recently told Philippine media that rising temperatures could reach a point where “various living creatures” would start to die in large numbers. “Such temperatures would vary from species to species,” he said. “But the deaths of these creatures would gravely affect the food supply chain.”
UN report author Christian Nellemann said that more than 50 percent of the world’s coral reefs could die by 2050 because of bleaching caused by higher ocean surface temperatures, based on climate projections by international scientists.
“Slight changes in ocean temperature will lead to coral bleaching which will impact on the coral reefs on which the country’s fishes feed,” Dr. Comiso said. In the Philippines, an estimated 10-15 percent of the total fisheries come from coral reefs.
About 80-90 per cent of the income of small island communities comes from fisheries. “Coral reef fish yields range from 20 to 25 metric tons per square kilometer per year for healthy reefs,” says Dr. Angel C. Alcala, former environment secretary.
“Corals tend to die in great numbers immediately following coral bleaching events, which may stretch across thousands of square kilometers of ocean,” explained Dr. Ove Hoegh- Guldberg, who has studied the phenomenon of coral bleaching since the early 1980s.
A new threat that will most likely cause havocs among coral reefs is ocean acidification. Unlike mass coral bleaching, when corals stressed by increased temperature become white, it is difficult to detect when any coral species is threatened by acidifi cation, according to Rod Salm, Nature Conservancy’s tropical marine conservation director for Asia and Pacific region.
The ocean absorbs about one-third of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which combines with sea water to form carbonic acid, a process called ocean acidification. Carbonic acid erodes calcium carbonate needed by corals and other calcifying organisms to build their skeletons.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide is expected to double in 50 years if current emission trends continue and “ocean acidification will continue to an extent and at rates that have not occurred for tens of millions of years,” Salm said.
“Ocean acidification is creeping, progressive and insidious… a weakening of the reef structure that makes corals more vulnerable to breakage from waves and human use.” Mangroves are not spared from destruction.
“All over the country, whatever coastal province you visit, you see the same plight – desolate stretches of shoreline completely stripped of mangrove cover and now totally exposed to the pounding of the ocean’s waves,” a marine environmentalist deplored.
Experts are very worried at this prospect as mangroves are home to 68 species of fish (including bangus, kitan, tilapia, eel, and mullet, to name a few), 54 species of crustaceans (shrimps, prawns, and crabs), and 56 species of gastropods.
“Fish use the spaces under the mass of prop roots of mangrove trees as ‘delivery rooms,’ and the offspring of many marine species spend their growing period in the mangrove swamps before moving on to the open said,” explained Dr. Guerrero.
But there are signs of hope. For instance, the country’s mangrove forests were estimated to cover 5,000 square kilometers 1918. By 1970, they had dwindled to 2,880 square kilometers and to 2,420 square kilometers a decade later.
But presently, mangroves are “relatively stable and even increasing in selected areas of management in Visayas,” according to the World Bank report. As such, overall rate of decline in recent years has lessened. “This is good news, indeed!” environmentalists declared.
However, more endeavors will still have to be done to slow down the current surge of population in the country in addition to protecting the fishery resources and their ecosystems, if this vital source of protein and culinary delight is to remain on the local dinner plate.