The debate about the state of our fishery resources is over. There is now no question that the seas surrounding the Philippine archipelago are to say the least a stressed ecosystem. The figures are compelling and can no longer be dismissed: The biomass of currently fished demersal stocks has declined to about 30% of its original levels in the 1940s (Silvestre and Pauly, 1986). Available data also indicate that small pelagics are biologically and economically overfished – effort level in the mid-1980s was already more than twice the level necessary to harvest maximum sustainable yield (Dalzell, et al, 1987).
Catch rates of commercial ring netters fell from a peak of about 11 metric tons/HP/year in 1950 to less than 1 metric ton/HP/year in 2001 (BINU Project, 2005), while average catch rates of municipal fishers declined steadily, according to one estimate, from 20kg/day in the 1970s to about 2kg in the 1990s (CRMP, 1998; Katon, et al, 1998). Meanwhile, from the mid-1960s to 1995 when marine fish harvest was at its highest in Central Visayas, annual average trophic level declined noticeably, indicating a significant level of “fishing down the food chain”. (Green, et al, 2004)
Such declines are directly attributable not only to overfishing but also to the destruction of habitats due to a variety of reasons not limited to destructive fishing. A large portion of Philippine coral reefs – up to 95% by some estimates – has been subjected to serious degradation which has reduced their productivity (Yap and Gomez, 1985). Total mangrove cover has shrunk to a fraction of its size 50 years ago (White and Trinidad, 1998), while seagrass communities have come under severe pressure from the combined effects of natural calamities, aquaculture, deforestation, siltation and destructive fishing methods (Fortes, 1989).
The question for us when we started was not whether there was a fish crisis but how should we go about addressing the situation. The Philippine fisheries situation is not unique in that it reflects a global trend of fisheries decline and coastal habitat destruction. But it presents a uniquely daunting challenge because of what it means to a big, mostly impoverished, section of our society (it is, literally, a “gut” issue, and an issue of social equity), and because of what it represents to the rest of the world (the risk of losing what has been acknowledged as the richest tropical marine biodiversity in the world, the “center of the center of marine shore fish diversity”). (Carpenter and Springer, 2005)
Increasing awareness of the degradation of our marine resources has shifted the focus of government and other programs from fisheries development to coastal management. The latter half of the last century was marked by the rapid evolution of coastal management from being mainly centralized/top-down through community-based to most recently local government-driven. This coincided with key policy developments that devolved the responsibility for managing coastal areas and resources to the lowest level of government. It signified the growing recognition, borne out of experience, that while management is most effective when carried out close to the resources used, there remains a need for integration to address the many facets of our coastal environment problem.
When the design for the FISH Project was developed in 2003, the Philippines had already scored significant gains in coastal management. Public awareness of the coastal crisis was at an all-time high. There was a critical mass that supported the advocacy for coastal management and the adoption of integrated coastal management as a basic service by local government. With assistance from various sources, local governments had begun to slowly build their capabilities and allocate resources to address broad coastal issues related to habitat destruction and resource degradation, primarily through marine protected areas (MPAs) and law enforcement.
The FISH Project’s mission was to build on this capacity-building effort. Banking on the spreading national acceptance of integrated coastal management as an essential development strategy, we sought to establish a policy environment and governance system based on coastal resource management (CRM) conducive to the promotion of sustainable fishing practices particularly in municipal waters. Our success would be reckoned by how well the various fisheries stakeholders could identify with and become more capable of continuing the still daunting journey toward a single vision of sustainable and responsible fisheries.
The rise of the Philippine peso against the US dollar mid-way through Project implementation presented a special challenge. The Project had a fixed funding denominated in US dollar; any depreciation of the US dollar against the peso meant less overall funding for implementation in peso terms, and required reevaluation and adjustment of our plans and activities. On a number of occasions, we had to scale down our own expectations of what could be realistically achieved during the Project’s life. We were fortunate that our partners especially in the local government were willing to take up the slack during those times when Project support for some activities had to be reduced in line with our frequently revised budget. Their commitment to the cause was encouraging, because while the Project could lay the groundwork, it is them, not the Project, who will have to confront the fish crisis for the long haul.
The FISH Project experience underscored only too well the difficulty of the journey that still lies ahead. But it also demonstrated that solutions are available and with enough political will can be implemented successfully. Inaction is no longer an acceptable option -- as uncertain as we are about the full extent of our fish crisis, we know without question that with our economic survival hanging in the balance, we can no longer put off cracking on overfishing and the many other unsustainable practices that continue to decimate our fishing grounds.Enabling conditions to sustain implementation
Through all seven years of the implementation of the FISH project, we sought to establish appropriate sustainability mechanisms at the municipal, inter-LGU (local government unit), provincial and national levels of government. The existence of some enabling conditions provides some indication of the sustainability prospects of our interventions.
At the local level, five enabling conditions to sustain implementation were identified, namely, 1) regular budget allocated to CRM programs (including – or specifically – fisheries management); 2) management plan adopted and supported by policy; 3) office formally mandated with CRM responsibilities; 4) institutional support systems available and accessible to LGUs; and 5) local champions and constituencies organized and active in the advocacy for sustainable fisheries.
At the inter-LGU level, we promoted cooperation and collaboration to provide a venue for policy and plan coordination and develop a support base for fisheries management from within the LGUs’ ranks, while building the foundation for scaling up fisheries management to a larger area. Four sustainability factors were considered: 1) legal basis of the inter-LGU cooperation; 2) inter-LGU planning; 3) budgetary support for inter-LGU programs; and 4) permanent secretariat to coordinate cooperation.
At the provincial level, we harnessed the important but still largely untapped role of the provincial government as a service provider in CRM and fisheries management, by providing limited capacity-building support to different provincial offices with the relevant mandates. Capacity-building generally focused on establishing three enabling conditions for sustainability: 1) provincial government’s role as CRM service provider clarified, defined and strengthened; 2) provincial staff trained as CRM service providers; and 3) funding support for CRM included in the provincial annual investment plan.
Three sustainability factors were considered at the national level: 1) policy reform and development, 2) constituency building, and 3) reporting and feedback.
There are two key aspects of capacity development where LGUs need assistance in order to effectively carry out and sustain CRM implementation. The first aspect relates to the technical requirements of project implementation, and the second concerns organizational and operational needs. Much of our effort at building local capacity to promote sustainable fisheries focused on developing technical capacities at the activity level, mainly MPA management, coastal law enforcement and IEC. In a number of our sites, some degree of competence in specialized technical functions, such as MPA monitoring, fishing vessel admeasurement, and GPS navigation and mapping, has been achieved. In most areas, personnel and resource users have also been exposed to IEC interventions and learned to advocate and champion CRM and sustainable fisheries within the LGU.
However, in terms of fisheries management and in particular fishing effort management, lack of technical expertise remains a top concern that must be addressed. Our experience with FISH underscored only too well that fishery law enforcement and MPAs alone cannot solve our overfishing problem – there must also be a systematic effort to manage overall fishing effort, and this is a critical gap that still needs to be resolved.
Besides enforcing already existing fishery laws and management measures, LGUs in general still do not have the technical capacity to address overfishing issues and the emerging issues on equity of access to fishery resources evident particularly in Danajon Bank. Few LGUs have even attempted to undertake fish catch monitoring on a regular basis, much less use fisheries information to analyze fishing trends for the purpose of fishing effort management. Indeed, while much progress has been achieved in capacitating LGUs in coastal law enforcement, MPA management, IEC, and some aspects of CRM planning and coordination, most LGUs still lack the technical capacity to fully perform their CRM mandates under the LGC and 1998 Fisheries Code.
Overall in the target areas, more work also needs to be done to address organizational and operational constraints, and even in the focal areas where the bulk of capacity building was directed, critical gaps remain. These include numerous institutional issues, such as lack of continuity between political term limits in the implementation of programs requiring sustained effort; poor implementation of CRM and fisheries management plans; weak law enforcement capabilities; inadequate institutional support; and inconsistency and conflicts between plans, programs and legislation within and between local and national governments.
Lack of funding is a perennial concern. While the average annual budget for CRM in the focal areas increased substantially from Php300,000 in 2003 to more than Php680,000 in 2010, this amount is still way below the investment needed for sustainable CRM at the municipal level, even one that is focused solely on fisheries concerns. Thus, although CRM and fisheries management plans have been adopted across our sites, most programs remain grossly underfunded, and their implementation is consequently patchy at best.
Funding deficits could be reduced by leveraging local resources through various inter-LGU cooperation arrangements, but except in Lanuza Bay, such arrangements have been largely limited to policy and coordination. Other sources of funding and technical expertise – the province, NGOs, academe and NGAs – are also not easily accessible and are themselves generally hampered by limited resources and capacity. Overall there is very limited assistance available for improving fisheries governance, particularly in regard to fishing effort management.
While some NGOs have become excellent service providers to catalyze improved CRM, their focus has been mainly on MPAs, community organizing, advocacy, legal services and IEC. Academic institutions involved in research of the socio-environmental aspects of CRM and fisheries can play a vital role by providing sound scientific studies and assessments needed for management decisions, but they too are underutilized. In general, information flow from assisting organizations is unidirectional with feedback mechanisms to government decision-makers lacking.
Provinces can be an important source of support and in fact have been already proven to be uniquely suited to foster harmonized local policies and programs through a provincial policy framework, provide technical and information management support services to coastal municipalities and cities, and thus contribute to the sustainability of local programs. With training from FISH, a number of provinces have begun showing increased appreciation of their role as CRM service provider by allocating funds for local CRM implementation. However, even here, there is still only minimal assistance that LGUs can expect whether in terms of funding or technical services. As in municipal and city LGUs, capacities still need to be developed in the provinces, in the context of both the technical and organizational requirements of CRM.
The policy instruments and institutional arrangements now present in the different provinces – from Bohol’s BEMO to Tawi-Tawi’s TEMO -- are encouraging developments, but they must be strengthened to become fully operational and truly relevant to the contemporary needs of CRM in their localities. Even Bohol’s BEMO, the oldest and most experienced among the provincial offices that provide technical assistance in CRM, is currently confined to a few CRM services, namely, CRM planning, MPA management and coastal law enforcement in a few municipalities.
Higher up the government hierarchy, NGAs with the bulk of CRM-related responsibilities -- DA-BFAR, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG, including the PNP), and the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC), in particular the PCG – often come up short in implementing policies and services toward supporting local initiatives in CRM. Since the devolution of major CRM responsibilities -- particularly fisheries management – to the local government in 1991, national government not only should have realigned and prioritized policies and programs toward the common goal of improving local governments’ capacity to manage their own coastal and fishery resources, it was also expected to provide consistent and clear policy guidance, training, and technical and financial assistance to LGUs, as well as monitor and evaluate the condition of coastal resources and progress of local management programs. Instead, considerable inconsistency, overlap, inaction, and conflict continue to exist within and between national governmentpolicies and programs related to CRM.
In particular, DA-BFAR, the country’s lead national agency in charge of fisheries, has yet to undertake a capacity development program for LGUs in fisheries management. In recent years, the bureau has taken steps to work more closely with LGUs, but its assistance remains heavily focused on increasing fisheries production, primarily through aquaculture and mariculture.
FISH did a tremendous job in assisting the formulation of various policies supporting sustainable fisheries, but only a handful of these policies have been approved by the DA-BFAR. Even the CNFIDP, the 25-year framework plan for sustainable fisheries development which in 2008 was adopted for implementation through a fisheries office order, has yet to be considered in the DA-BFAR’s budget programming. Consequently, the bureau continues to face serious issues that hamper its ability to balance its mandate for increased production with sustainable use of the nation’s fishery resources.
Several actions can be immediately taken in the FISH sites to advance capacity building and improve local implementation. These include:
The single most important sector in the coastal zone is the municipal fisheries sector, and it must remain the focus of future capacity building efforts. Where fisheries management is concerned, future initiatives must integrate into the process the steps needed to systematically manage fishing effort using the best available information to continuously guide planning, policy-making and enforcement.
During the course of Project implementation, we tested a participatory process of identifying species that required management and the measures needed to manage them. One deficiency in this approach was that it did not complete the integration of this particular process into the main planning activity that was being undertaken to broadly identify the programs and strategies to address local CRM concerns. Consequently, there was little appreciation of the process itself, because LGUs perceived the activity as a one-off exercise to achieve a specific objective, such as the declaration of a siganid closed season. Nevertheless, with a little adaptation, future projects would do well to use this experience to develop a fisheries management process that is suited to existing capacities and resources at the local level, and then integrate the process into the LGU planning system. The fishery registration and licensing system that we helped install in our focal area LGUs must also be linked to the system to inform planning and management.
One critical area of competency that still needs to be filled is fish catch monitoring. Our attempt to install a fish catch monitoring system in our sites did not prosper because LGUs found the methods used to be too rigorous and costly. Despite such setback, the effort to develop an acceptable fish catch monitoring method must continue and LGUs must be persuaded to use it by demonstrating its practical applications, particularly in managing fishing effort.Institutional support systems
It was our operational policy to engage multiple levels of government to build institutional support for local initiatives and promote program sustainability. The following actions are recommended to further develop these institutional arrangements:
As capacities are built across all levels of government, there are emerging opportunities and challenges to scale up the gains across the fishing groups of the country. The following recommended actions have been put forward for the Philippine government to consider:
In 2003 when we received our marching orders to promote sustainable fisheries in the four FISH Project areas, we knew that we would be facing many great challenges. But we also knew with certainty that what we were tasked to do was not impossible. Now, seven years later, we are proud of our many accomplishments particularly in helping our partner LGUs achieve some capacity in controlling a number of critical factors that could cause harm to their municipal fisheries.
But the question persists, can sustainable fisheries happen? On this, we remain hopeful. Sustainable fisheries can certainly happen, but not without more hard work from everyone concerned.
Fact is sustainable fisheries must happen. Our fishery resources are not something we can lose without dire consequences. The stakes are too high. And having gone this far, after learning and accomplishing so much, those who are responsible for municipal fisheries in our focal areas, along with those who are mandated to assist them, are at least in a better place today than seven years ago, even with a still good distance to go. Through their shared experience in implementing the FISH Project, they have gained knowledge steeped in reality, and it will stand them in good stead as they continue their way forward to sustainable fisheries, more surely and more confidently now that they have the wisdom of experience and clarity of hindsight. We hope it will guide them to a future where sustainable and responsible fisheries are the norm rather than the exception, the primary consideration rather than merely an afterthought.