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Bacolod City, Philippines Thursday, September 3, 2020
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with Ben S. Malayang III

Food for thought on seafoods

Ben Malayang

They’re among our most common foods. So common that we hardly notice that they’re getting scarcer. Most don’t notice that we’re slowly losing them.

I refer to our fisheries (animals and plants that we get from water bodies for food, pharmaceuticals, feeds, and fiber).

Nationwide, our fisheries catch (or “capture fisheries” production) has been declining in recent years.

But the decline has been compensated a bit by increases from “culture fisheries” (or fisheries raised in ponds and cages). While capture fisheries have been going down, culture fisheries have been increasing slightly.

Unfortunately, volume increases from culture fisheries have not fully matched the decreases in capture fisheries. Capture fisheries declined by 8.6 percent from 2016 to 2018, while culture fisheries increased by 4.7 percent in the same 3 years. Taken together, the decline in our total national fisheries production was about 2 percent in the last 3 years, which could have been higher if production from culture fisheries did not increase slightly in the same period.

Fishers across the country may differ in their perceptions of whether or not we’re having less fisheries to capture. This is because stocks in the wild differ in abundance across fishing grounds. And harvest rates vary widely depending on local fishing capacities and scales of fishing.

Declining production creates scarcity and is generally indicated by prices. Prices go up if at any given time and place, the amount of fisheries produced and are available for consumption (or “supply” of fisheries) is less than the volume being wanted by those who want them (or “demand” for fisheries). Prices go down if supply exceeds demand.

What’s been the price movements of our seafoods in the last 3-4 years?

Ask around. They’ve been rising. I believe, for three reasons:

First, our population has been growing. Good or not, defensible, desirable, or undesirable (there’s lots of debate on this), the fact is that there are now more of us who’d want fisheries for sustenance or as a food option. Given what we could only produce and because many of us Filipinos could hardly afford alternative sources of protein, fisheries and seafood prices inevitably go up when demand goes up against supply.

Second, our marine and coastal habitats have been continuously deteriorating the past many years. This affected our fisheries production because worsening habitats mean less optimal conditions for fisheries to thrive.

In 1997, it was reported that since about 1977, more than 75 percent of our coral reefs have been degraded ( Chou et al. 1994 ;  Gomez et al. 1994 ). Mangrove forests were being decimated at a rate of 2,000 hectares/year with only 120,000 hectares of mangrove forests remaining that year as compared to 160,000 hectares in 1997 and about 450,000 hectares at the turn of the century ( DENR 1995 ;  White and de Leon 1996 ). Small scale or artisanal fisheries production has been stagnant but started declining by 1991 ( BFAR 1995 ,  1997 ; see http://www.oneocean.org/flash/the_philippine _seas.html). By 2017, only 4% of our coral reefs were deemed “excellent”, 31 percent “good”, 46.6 percent fair, and 18 percent “poor”. Because of new plantings, our mangrove forests increased in area from 291,268 hectares in 2005 to 332,531.47 hectares in 2014, which was an improvement but still a big drop from the 450,000 hectares we had in 1900 .

And third, we’ve not been nice to our fisheries. We enjoy them. We value them. But we’ve been chronically short in caring for them. We’ve not been making sure that we don’t harvest them in excess of their natural limits to reproduce and replenish their populations. It’s a moral and ethical dilemma. We see much seas and oceans in our archipelago that we’ve been lulled to believing that they contain unlimited fisheries. This made us fail to develop a collective moral obligation for treating them as a limited and fragile resource. And so, in turn, we’ve felt no personal ethical restrictions to moderate how much we get from our waters.

What’ll we do? We could craft novel technologies and ways to be more careful with our harvests and consumption of fisheries. Or adopt creative legislation to better protect them.

But unless we see in our seas, oceans, lakes, rivers, and estuaries a vast “Blue Cathedral” of God’s abundant grace – where we are to thread in its naves in worshipful stewardship – we’ll continue thrashing our fisheries in careless abandon.

My take: We urgently need a science-informed moral edifice and ethical armor over our fisheries and aquatic ecosystems. And we need to recognize that they’re God’s. Else, our seafoods would continue becoming more expensive and the horizons of a bright blue future for our archipelagic nation would remain dim.

What if, when seeing seafoods in our tables, we pray to thank God for them and plead that we grow in faith to be more morally responsible and ethically obligated to care for them? And do so as an act of worshipful response to God’s abundant love and grace sprouting from our oceans, seas, and waters?*

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