Statement on President Marcos’ Policy Directive on Fisheries and Food Security in SONA 2023

In his second State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Bongbong Marcos declared that the “Fisheries Code must be revised to incorporate and strengthen science-based analysis and determination of fishing areas [to] protect both the interests of our fisherfolk and our fisheries and aquatic resources.” The amendment of Republic Act No. 10654 or the Amended Fisheries Code was listed as a priority legislation, to “guarantee sustainable development of our fisheries sector in harmony with environmental balance.”

Fisheries and aquaculture are a critical sector for our food security and economy, with over 2 million registered fisherfolk across the country and an estimated contribution of Php 248 billion to the National Economy in 2021. Fish and seafood are the primary source of protein for most Filipinos – an unsurprising fact as our country hosts rich marine biodiversity as can be seen in habitats like the Verde Island Passage (VIP), dubbed as the ‘center of the center’ of marine shore fish biodiversity in the world. It is thus welcome for the government to pay attention to the plight of those who feed our nation and the protection of fisheries and aquatic resources that sustain millions of Filipinos.

In light of this policy directive, CEED urges the administration to prioritize the stringent enforcement of existing measures to protect and conserve coastal areas and seas as its primary way forward, and to ensure a transparent consultation process on the status of implementation with fisherfolk and concerned sectors. Most importantly, any action on the government concerning fisheries must prioritize the empowerment of municipal fisherfolk in accessing and protecting near-shore marine resources, and in contributing to the management of the country’s fisheries industry as the sector’s key stakeholders.

One may recall that this call for an amendment to the Code during the SONA is not the first such initiative. In 2014, the European Union, one of our largest markets for fisheries, threatened to ban fish imports from the Philippines due to our deficient actions towards addressing illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing (IUUF). This yellow card warning and a United Nations’ call to comply with theInternational Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IPOA-IUU) prompted the government to amend the Fisheries Code of 1998 in 2015. 

It is thus alarming that in March 2023, a Memorandum from the Office of the President instructed the suspension of the Fisheries Administrative Order No. 266 (FAO 266). Issued in 2020, the administrative order sought to combat IUUF by installing vessel monitoring measures and electronic reporting systems to commercial fishing vessels to tighten the security and accountability of the vessels and track and identify their behaviors  in waters they operate in. The suspension of FAO 266 exposes marine resources and small-scale fisherfolk to IUUF risks, on top of the many other threats already confronted by the sector. These include the encroachment of commercial vessels in municipal waters, and habitat loss of mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs from reclamation projects brought by the weak enforcement of the amended Fisheries Code.

The oil spill crisis in the VIP is also a stark example of the disempowerment and threats that fisherfolk are increasingly subjected to. Since February this year, major losses in marine resources and livelihoods have been incurred in affected municipalities, with Oriental Mindoro bearing the brunt of impacts. In the amended Fisheries Code, the oil spill falls under the definition of ‘Aquatic Pollution,’ wherein offenders, if found liable, can be fined with Php 300,000 to Php 500,000 or sentenced to imprisonment for 6-12 years. To date, accountability remains elusive, and fisherfolk and adjacent sectors have yet to receive just compensation for the disruption to their livelihood and day-to-day living, health risks faced, damages to equipment, and reparation for long term impacts in affected waters. Meanwhile, concerns remain over the safety of the resumption of fishing activities and consumption of seafood from affected waters given a dire status of transparency for scientific bases leading to fishing ban lifting announcements.

While the President’s policy pronouncement is welcome, we are alarmed that conversations regarding the amendment of the Fisheries Code prior to SONA fail to genuinely prioritize such threats confronted by workers and resources in the fisheries sector, and have largely neglected proper consultation with stakeholders. This is especially concerning considering that mandatory reviews of the implementation of the Fisheries Code should be undertaken at least once every five years, and with meaningful participation from fisherfolk and other stakeholders. Proposed amendments presented by the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to civil society organizations and fisherfolk organizations in a small group consultation last June 2023 intend to alter the definition of municipal waters by using the coastline of a municipality as a reference point of the 15-kilometer municipal water range, instead of farthest island barangays within the municipality’s jurisdiction. Such proposition promotes the displacement of small-scale fisherfolk while proving potentially advantageous to commercial fishing vessels. Other grave threats risking shrinking access of fisherfolk to near-shore waters also increasingly emerge, such as the rise of water-intensive and coastal facilities like the gas and liquefied natural gas projects along the VIP.

Civil society, fisherfolk, and concerned sectors will watch over the proposition to amend the Fisheries Code with vigilance. The government must ensure that it is a process which places the preservation of our megadiverse yet critically endangered marine and coastal resources as primary agenda, and tilts the balance of resource access and decision-making capacities in favor of municipal and small-scale fisherfolk who, with their day-to-day living being woven to the health of our seas, are the most capable and knowledgeable in protecting it.