Where have all our fish gone?

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    “We are running out of fish and running out of time. For a country known for marine biodiversity, there are very few fish left to catch,” Vince Cinches, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, told reporters recently.

    The ever-growing population has been cited as the driving force of the rapid depletion of fishery resources in the country. Already, the country is home to 96.2 million Filipinos in mid- 2012.

    By mid-2025, the population is expected to balloon to 117.8 million, according to the World Population Data Sheet prepared by the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau. By mid-2050, the figure will even go up further to 154.5 million.

    The country’s birth rate (annual number of births per 1,000 total population) is 25 while its death rate (annual number of deaths per 1,000 total population) is only 6. So, it means that every year, 19 people per 1,000 total population are added to the current number of Filipinos.

    If the present rapid human population growth and declining trend in fi sh production continue, the World Bank predicts that only 10 kg of fish will be available per Filipino per year by 2020, as opposed to the 28.5 kilograms in 2003.

    “Without any change in fi sh consumption and no active human population management program, domestic demand for fi sh will reach 3.2 billion kilograms by 2020, given the projected population growth rate of the country,” the World Bank said in its Philippine Environment Monitor.

    About 62 percent of the population in the Philippines lives in the coastal zone. Filipinos are one of the world’s biggest fish consumers as more than half of their protein requirement come from fi sh. Each year, a Filipino consumes almost 30 kilograms of seafood.

    “The rapidly rising population has overwhelmed the fisheries that have traditionally supported the country, bringing grinding poverty and malnutrition to many coastal communities,” wrote Joan Castro and Leona D’Agnes in a report circulated by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

    The continuous population growth is just part of the problem. Although fish stocks are renewable resource, many of them are strained to the limit, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) claims. “Over the years, they have suffered from a widespread notion that the seas are inexhaustible and economic pressures that have encouraged overexploitation,” the BFAR, a line agency of the Department of Agriculture, deplores.

    If you will ask fishery experts, they will explain that all fi shing activities depend on a fragile resource base which, if mismanaged and overexploited, can easily collapse.

    Peter Weber, a researcher of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, agrees. “Overfishing is the primary cause of dwindling fi sh population,” he writes in his report, “Net Loss: Fish, Jobs, and the Marine Environment.”

    The World Bank report has the same view. “All fisheries are showing decline in total catch and per unit effort (total number of fish caught per unit of time) despite increasing effort,” it notes. “Fish are harvested at a level 30% to 50% higher than the natural production capacity.”

    The methods employed by Filipino fishermen in catching the fish contributed to the problem. To get more fish, some of them employ dynamite fishing. Estimates vary but the minimum figure indicates that at least ten percent of fishermen in the country are hardcore explosive fishermen.

    Poachers are also using the same destructive strategies in catching fi sh in the Philippine waters. “While before they would fish with sonar and other modern gears, the abominable poachers have found fishing with either poison or explosive more to their liking as it entails less overhead, cut short the ‘hunting process, and yield more fish,” denounced the International Marinelife Alliance of the Philippines.

    The Philippines is home to 70 percent of the world’s ornamental fi sh. The latest data from 2005 showed the country exported 5.7 million aquarium fi shes to the United States in that year, making the Philippines the world’s biggest supplier of aquarium fishes.

    Most of these aquarium fi shes are caught using cyanide. The widespread use of illegal cyanide kills thousands of tons of commercial f sh and shellfish each year. “The use of sodium cyanide in the Philippines is a tremendous problem and it is growing,” says Dr. Alan White, who used to be the chief of party of the Coastal Resource Management Project in Central Visayas.

    Repeated doses of cyanide are also destroying coral reefs on which marine life depends for shelter. The Philippines has 27,000 square kilometers of coral reef area within a 15- to 30-meter depth, one of the largest in the world.

    “Almost 55 percent of fi sh consumed by Filipinos depends on coral reefs; 10 to 15 percent of the total marine fisheries production comes from the coral reefs,” says Dr. Miguel D. Fortes, a professor at the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines.

    Aside from coral reefs, another fragile resource base for fish is the mangroves. “They are very important to marine life,” explains Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, the former executive director of the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development.

    “Mangroves serve as sanctuaries and feeding grounds for fi sh that nibble on detritus (fallen and decaying leaves) trapped in the vegetation, and on the bark and leaves of living trees,” the national scientist adds.

    Mangroves are important feeding sties for many commercially important fish species (like mullet, tilapia, eel, and especially bangus), shrimps, prawns, mollusks, crabs, and sea cucumbers.

    But most of the country’s mangroves are all gone. “Mangrove forests have been converted to aquaculture, salt production, and human settlement,” the World Bank report says. The construction of tourism infrastructures like hotels and restaurants has also contributed to the destruction of mangroves.

    Most of the above problems are local in nature. But what the country cannot solve – and it needs cooperation from all countries all over the world – is climate change caused by global warming. “We still have enough fish now but with global warming we may have problems in the coming years unless we do something about it,” warns Dr. Guerrero.

    This has been confirmed by a report from 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 Josefi no Comiso explained 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.”

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