INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPTS - Dr. Geronimo Silvestre

Geronimo Silvestre is a Research Scientist at the International Center for Living Aquatic Resource Management (ICLARM) in the Philippines.


How do fisheries fare throughout the Philippines?

Throughout the Philippines, there is, overall, country-wide, a lot of over fishing going on.

There is, in the commercial fisheries in excess, of about, 50% of fishing effort, currently, leading to tremendous losses for the fisheries.

Could you speak about some of the problems in fisheries management that are faced by the Philippines?

We are faced, in reference to Philippine fisheries, with very serious problems. We have a lot of over fishing going on. The fishing effort, in most of the fisheries, in the country, is often times 30% to 50% above that what is necessary to be able to harvest the magnitude of catches that corresponds to maximum sustainable yields. There is a lot of excessive fishing pressure and a need, obviously, for the country, to be able to reduce the excessive pressure, cut down by about a third to about half of the current levels. We face a lot of problems relative to destructive fishing methods. Fishing methods that are not consistent with sustainable fishing practices. There are a lot of dynamite fishing going on. There is plenty of fish poisoning going on to bring in the catches. We are faced with problems of extensive trolling in the near shore habitats and the process damaging important hatcheries and productive near shore grounds. Together with this we are faced with problems of immense conflicts between the small scale and the large scale fishery sector. Equity problems that should be addressed for the purpose of optimizing the benefits for the greater number of fishers involved in the sector.

There is a lot of post harvest losses being incurred, and estimates are about 30% of the landings are being lost to either the physical losses of spoilage and tremendous losses of value also, because of the heat of the tropical sun, you match up with this a lot of pressures outside the sector itself. We see a lot of pollution going on. We see a lot of habitat degradation happening. Reefs are being blasted. Poisons are being used, causing tremendous damage to the reefs that are important to the productivity of the coastal fishing grounds. We see a lot of mangrove cutting happening, for use as firewood, for example. And also for conversion to aquaculture purposes.

The solutions to this are quite evident from the issues. We have to reduce effort. We have to stop destructive fishing methods. We have to have better marketing facilities and post harvest handling facilities. We have to be able to enforce the regulations that limit the small-scale fishing grounds from the large-scale fishing grounds. But the current institutions are currently incapable of enforcing these regulations in the field.

We have them legislated; we have the laws. We know what the problems are and we know often times what the solutions are. The question, and the main challenge to us is, in addressing these problems, we will have to be able to improve the national institutional capabilities for them to be able to put in place, integrated sets of actions to address the issues at various levels. Therefore, when we talk about resources mobilization we, we face in the developing world context, a lot of problems related to development, social problems. They are equally pressing — developing and social needs, that fisheries issues have to compete with. And therefore, this is a serious challenge for us.

The high population growth rates, in our part of the world is not helping any bit. And we would need serious assistance in this line to be able to reduce the pressure on the fishery resources that we benefit from.

All these are negative factors to my mind that are, impacting the ability of developing countries like the Philippines to be able to mobilize the resources that are necessary to improve national capabilities and then put in place the necessary solutions and programs of action to resolve the multifaceted issues that we face.

Is nature debt a factor?

In the Philippines, after the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown and Aquino government was there, we were paying, at the time around the mid 1980s, almost about 50% of our export receipts went to servicing the national debt. But efforts by subsequent administrations, after Aquino, allowed us to be able to reduce this substantively. I think, at the current levels we are paying only about, between 5-10% of our export receipts to be able to service the national debt, which is now running at 40 billion dollars. It is a substantive sum. It is something that could be better used for many of the development and social problems that we face, and therefore, giving the fishing sector a greater chance to harness some of that pot and throw them at the problems that we face.

The same is true for many of the countries in the Asian region. Indonesia has a large external debt. Thailand has a large external debt. Many of the developing countries in the Asian region are faced with these external debts. The seriousness of the problem, evidently, has decreased in the past decade, as compared to, say the mid 80’s. But it still is a major issue that must be and we will continue to face limitations in our ability, at the national level, to face up to the problems that we face.

You were just talking about the notion of developing countries thinking that their problems are theirs alone. You were saying that developing countries need to understand that biodiversity is a global issue. Could you speak more about that?

I think that the developed countries have a stake in the problems we in the developing world face. We cannot be left alone to face the issues, given the limited resources that we have. There has to be concerted action at the international level.

Biodiversity is a heritage of mankind; it is a global problem and it requires global efforts for us to make, be able to put in place the scale of interventions that are necessary to be able to moderate the problems or at, or reverse them for that matter. It is a global heritage that is at stake and therefore, the developed world has to share in the burden of facing up to that problem.

What do you believe are the main causes of overfishing in the developing world?

Directly, in the Philippines, over fishing results from, to my mind, the lack of alternative livelihoods in the rural areas. I think over fishing, in our context, is a consequence of the overall economic situations we see in the rural areas — the lack of economic opportunities, landlessness, poverty in those regions. Fishing, in that context is an occupation of last resort. There are no limits to entry in those fisheries, and therefore, it is the easiest thing for the rural poor to be able to learn a decent livelihood for their families. Given that as a context, the high population growth rates that we have is not helping us in any way to address the problem of over fishing. Because we see tremendous numbers of young people entering the workforce every year.

The population problem is a main driving force also. It is something that we have recognized a long times ago. Enormous numbers we added to the labor force every year. But in essence, the population problem seems to be an intractable one for us. There are social limits to what we can do.

There are religious undertones to what the government, in terms of programs, can execute to be able to reverse, or at least moderate the population growth that we see in the rural areas. So, to me overfishing is, is a social problem. It is an economic problem. It is, to my mind, also, a political problem. The lack of opportunities that you see in the rural setting emanates from the way the factors of production are distributed across the general population. When you have 10% of the country producing 90% of the GNP, then you are facing tremendous problems in the ownership of the productive capabilities of an economy.

Overfishing to me is just a symptom of the underlying political problems that we should be facing — the social problems that we should be facing up to, the economic problems that we are facing up to.

Unless we get that political will and that social awareness that we must be able to address the underlying problems of inequity — both in the political sphere and in the economic sphere, to correct the social repercussions that we see, in terms of poverty, then we might as well give up the fight, if we do not face up to the underlying causes of the problem.

To what extent do Phillipine pelagic fisheries depend on fishing on foreign waters or on joint ventures with other nations?

We know it is substantive but nobody has real figures to back up how substantive that is.

The Philippine small pelagic fisheries, for example, the fishing for mackerels and stuff — for anchovies — is grossly over fished. The current levels of fishing effort are estimated to be about, between 30%-60% in excess of what is necessary, to be able to harvest the potential production that the resources can sustain. But given the declining catch rates associated with that over fishing, and given that we are able to keep the supply steady, then there are given inputs from the private fishing sector, there is tremendous fishing down south, in the Indonesian areas.

The situation for tunas, for example, is also not so healthy in terms of the state of the resources. The major tuna, yellowfin and skip jack, given more recent scientific studies say, that they are also heavily fished in Philippine waters. Our friends in the commercial fishing industries tell us that they have been fishing all the way down south to Papua New Guinea, given private arrangements with Indonesian local authorities, minus government formal treaties. They they would say, "leave the government out. The negotiations with the, with the Indonesians will just, when put on an official level will become more complicated, so let, let, just leave us alone." So, we understand that a substantive portion of the large pelagic catches, at least of tunas, comes from fishing, not mainly in Philippine waters where most of the fishes are undersized. They must be coming further down south from our neighbors in private venture arrangements.

To what degree are foreign fishing fleets fishing Philippine waters?

There is a lot of complaints from the private fishing sector of poaching in Philippine waters by foreign fishing fleets, the exact magnitude of which we do not have any figures to back us up.

You have a lot of existing laws having to do with fisheries management, but it sounds like enforcement has not been adequate. What is the largest obstacle to good fisheries management?

The enforcement is very inadequate in terms of enforcement of current laws that are in place for management of the fisheries. The way to go is not to manage things from central Manila, but to follow the path of what the government is already doing — increase the evolution of central authority to the management of fisheries, to the local government units and to the local communities. The way to be able to enforce these laws is to get the local stake holders involved in the management and enforcement of the rules and regulations for the management of the resources.

There are a lot of limitations — from the practical level to the financial capabilities to the institutional capabilities, in terms of logistics, for example. And, personal capabilities in enforcing the laws.

I mean, bringing somebody to court is a very technical and complicated game in the Philippines. If you face the situation of the economic power of the commercial fishing sector. You have a tremendous challenge in front of you. What is needed is increased political will to make sure that the laws are implemented without favor. And I guess, that is the biggest obstacle to us. We have to face, of course, with pragmatism the political and economic power of the interests of the large scale sector. It is something to contend with but if there is the political will on the side of the local governments to be able to sustain the livelihoods of majority of the fishers, under their jurisdiction, well I guess we would have solved most of the problems already.

Do you feel like the work these NGO’s are doing is important?

NGO’s play a very important role in us facing up to the problems. They are important engines for us to be able to introduce the necessary measures and to be able to balance off the political and economic pressures from the other parties that are benefiting from the current state. There are limits, however, to what they can do.

What the government needs to do is to be able to institutionalize the role of NGOs stakeholders in the overall management of the fisheries. They play a tremendous role. They have tremendous rapport with the local population where they are working. And I think it is really the way to go. How one puts them as part of the overall context of the management regimes that are put in place in the local areas, of course, is a distinct challenge that must be faced. We have been in the Philippines introducing fisheries management counsels, for management of specific areas. And NGO’s play a vital role in those councils when they are represented to voice the side of the disadvantaged, and to voice the side of the environment and sustainable development in the decision-making debate that goes on in those councils.

Can you speak to the importance of seafood as a source of protein for people in the Philippines?

It is a major source of protein.

Seafood is a very important source of protein for the Philippine population. It contributes, roughly, about 60% of animal protein consumed by the Philippinos, who are about 70 million nowadays. We consume, on the average, 42 kilograms, per capita, on an annual basis. So it is the major source of animal protein for the Philippine population. Apart from its nutritional value, as a source of food, it also is a major source of livelihood for many of the people in the coastal areas. So it is a major source of employment for people, a major source of livelihood for them, and a major source of valuable foreign exchange in a country that is facing the Asian financial crisis and is trying to squirm of its external debt bill.

How important are the restoration of mangroves for the future of fisheries in the Philippines?

There have been studies of the links between mangrove health and the productivity of coastal waters. The mangroves are main nursery and feeding rounds for many of the coastal fish that we are dependent upon. It is of substantial importance to the productivity of coastal waters. But right now the mangrove stands are down to, in most areas, down to 50% of their original cover. In some areas almost down to 10% of what was originally there. So we are facing tremendous mangrove destructive in this part of the world.

We rely on mangroves for a lot of things. We rely on them for, for the productivity of the coastal waters, but also if you look at mangroves as coastal protection and as filters, for example, for the siltation that comes from upstream from the degraded watersheds, then you will more or less realize the great significance of mangroves and us being able to maintain the quality of the coastal waters that sustain the coastal fisheries production that we have.

How do you maintain your drive in your work?

I grew up in a coastal fishing village in southern Manila. When I was younger the condition of the fishers, which were much better back, way back then. And through time, when I visited my home town, every year I was witness to how their lifestyles and their livelihoods have been affected by the host of problems that we all face. I guess what drives me is the fact that my training in Western schools tells me there is a way around it; we know what needs to be done.

On the other hand, I see the situation in the fisheries and the poverty that the fishers face, and that there are solutions to the problems, if we just get our act straight. What drives me is the fact that these are serious problems. They are causes of frustrations in the course of the battle everyday that we face in trying to promote sustainable fisheries in this part of the world. But then again, the benefits far outweigh in what we have been paying in terms of time, since we started on this endeavor. There is much to be gained in sustaining the benefits that we, that we generate.

Very few countries in Asia, given the poverty that they face, can ill afford the economic losses that are resulting from the over fishing problem that we face from the destruction of the course of fishery resources that we have, and the related habitats that sustain them. We in the developing countries can ill afford these losses and we must be able to address these problems. The solutions are there. All we need to do is get our acts together.