We are witnesses to one of the biggest ironies of our time. We are an archipelagic country endowed with abundant fishing waters and rich marine resources, yet the fishers—who by dint of hard work bring these rich marine resources to our markets and our food tables—are not enjoying this wealth. They are in fact the poorest among the poor, even by government accounts.
The country’s marine wealth and fishing waters, once a property of commons, is now monopolized by a tiny fraction of individuals and corporations, guaranteed by entitlement to plunder by the government. They amass huge profits from it, to the deprivation of the fishers whose lives and livelihoods depend on it.
Privatization, conversion, and widespread reclamation of fishing waters have already displaced thousands of fisherfolk from coastal communities. The once rustic fishers’ homes built along coastal waters, with fishing boats moored alongside, are now high rise commercial buildings or private beach resorts packed with cottages. The fishers, if not evicted from their communities, are now rowers for boat rides or workers in these tourists sites living on paltry wages barely enough to sustain their families.
Those so called ‘development’ projects were smoothly implemented courtesy of the current fisheries law and program by the government. The Fisheries Code of 1998 professed to modernize the fisheries industry and uplift the lives of the impoverished fishers. But the real score is that the law has left poor fishers at their rope’s ends and finding themselves sinking into a quagmire of misery.
In reality, the Fisheries Code of 1998 legalized the control and monopoly of local and foreign commercial fishing fleets in municipal fishing waters, a domain for the small fisherfolk. This monopoly, and production designed for export, has abruptly depleted the fish in our seas. To make matters worse, the fisheries law also imposed exactions and regulations against small fishers. Examples are the registration system of fishing boats and gears at unaffordable fees, a color-coding scheme that limited the number of days fishers can go fishing, and an absurd rule to report the quantity and the kind of fish caught.
Legislated after the Philippines became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, the Fisheries Code was framed under a global trade regime that promoted fish production based on export, and consumption based on import. Since then, the country’s first-class and fresh marine products were served in a silver platter to the international market, while Filipino consumers, especially the poor, have to make do with lesser quality fish, and worse, the cheap imported and at times putrescent fish now widely available in the local markets.
To sum up, the fisherfolk for 18 years have gravely suffered from chronic hunger and poverty, exacerbated by government neglect and denial of socio-economic rights. Fishers are loathe to leave the sea. If the sea can still sustain their everyday lives, they won’t. But right now they don’t have much options; the choice is between the devil and the deep blue sea.
The race for the country’s next leaders is on its finish line this coming May. But it is lamentable that most candidates do not have clear and categorical programs for the fishing sector and rural development. Will the government once again renege on its duty to protect small-scale fishers?
Unperturbed, small fishers through their militant organizations and actions will continue sailing, in the journey to create better lives for the fisherfolk of this country.