Debunking the Fisheries Code: Small fishers lament heavy fines, loss of livelihood

(Photo by Ruth Lumibao/Bulatlat)

By RUTH LUMIBAO
Bulatlat

Related story: Navotas fisherfolk hold fluvial protest vs. reclamation, demolition

MANILA — “Mario,” (not his true name) owns and pilots a medium-sized fishing boat used to catch alamang, (krill) anchovies and dulong (silverfish). He lives in Navotas, in a fishing community soon to be demolished by the Philippine government to establish the Navotas Boulevard Business Park (NBBP).

In a boat managed by six fishers, they earn about P10,000 ($194) in total. After subtracting the expenses for gas and dividing the income among themselves, Mario gets to keep P3,000 ($58). Although this amount can be sufficient for a week, Mario also shoulders the cost for repairs of the boat and the heavy penalties imposed by municipal ordinances for illegal fishing. They are all burdened by the uncertainty of the next day’s catch.

Mario is among many other fisher folk who attribute additional hardships on the sector to Republic Act 8550, or the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 as an oppressive legislation. It was amended in 2015 after the European Union gave a “yellow card” in 2014, sanctioning the Philippines for illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.

With various reclamation projects set to take effect during the Duterte administration, it is only a matter of time until the fisher folk lose their livelihood and face worsening hunger – it is a matter of life and death.

Iron fist

The Amended Fisheries Code is a basic example of how a law can be used against its supposed beneficiaries.

For the fisherfolk, it is an “iron fist law” which imposes heavy penalties on small fishers, liberalizes the fishing economy, and is prone to abuses by the local government units.

For all its environmental objectives, RA 8550 only opened our waters to commercial fishing and aquaculture, and heavily penalized and punished small- and medium-scale fisher folk. One of his crew members was penalized with P100,000 ($1,945).

The law imposes the following fines for fishing without license or permit:
• P50,000 to P100,000 ($970 to $ 1,940) for small-scale commercial fishing;
• P150,000 to P500,000 ($2,900 to $9,700) for medium-scale commercial fishing; and,
• P1 million to P5 million ($19,440 to $97,000) large-scale commercial fishing.

Photos of fishermen who were arrested and detained for illegal fishing. They were released after paying penalties. (Photo courtesy of Pamalakaya)

Due to the devolution of the management of municipal waters to the local government units, village councils are empowered to issue their own ordinances to ban fishers from nearby towns from fishing in their area. This is a departure from Philippine custom, which allows communal fishing. Small fishermen insist that the main violators of the law should be commercial fishers, who use large nets and practice aquaculture, which undeniably alters the ecological balance of the area.

The main objective of the Amended Fisheries Code was to lift the “yellow card” imposed by EU, a warning that they will ban Philippine marine products in their countries until it complies with their demands. While environmental degradation is a legitimate concern, it should not be done at the expense of the fisherfolk’s legitimate livelihood. Ironically, the law allows private companies to own coastal lands and waters for commercial fishing and aquaculture for up to 50 years.

Extortion in the ocean

Last year, Mario narrated that he was penalized thrice, in different amounts, by the maritime police of Cavite. The total amount of penalties reached about P50,000 ($970). Another fisher who owns a medium-size boat was penalized with P100,000 ($1,940).

The local government unit or maritime police would also wholly confiscate their boat, fish, and other catch, with a provision that they can “bail it out” only after paying penalty. For this reason, the fishers, in effect, have neither food nor money to bring home. A Cavite village council even required the penalized boatowner to present his boat to the council if it would be required by the court.

The local government unit and police would also sue them for illegal fishing. At present, Mario himself has a pending case in court.

There are three areas in Cavite which have become notorious for arbitrary arresting fishers and penalizing them for illegal fishing. Armed with a municipal ordinance, the Cavite Bantay Dagat and Maritime Police carry out the arrests.

In Tansa Hulugan, a certain Captain Mando of the Cavite Bantay Dagat would ask fishers to pay P5,000 ($97) per person when caught for illegal fishing. In Sto. Rosario, a certain Captain Morabe is known for arresting fisher folk, and in Cavite City, a certain “Ka Oteng” is known for the same.

Mario called their scheme “pangongotong,” practically plain and simple extortion from fisher folk. They are called “illegal fishers” because their boats were registered in Navotas city, but they have gone as far as Cavite – although the body of water occupied by both towns is the same: the Manila Bay.

After the reclamation is complete, the fisher folk will no longer have anywhere else to go. Pushing farther from their original fishing area is illegal and relocating them to another area is equivalent to a loss of their livelihood. They lament they are patently disregarded in the Navotas city government’s plan for “development.”

Fisher folk group Pamalakaya has called for the repeal of the Amended Fisheries Code. As former Anakpawis Representative Fernando “Ka Pando” Hicap puts it, the Fisheries Code imposes unreasonable fees and requirements for fishers to make a living. With development projects coming in left and right, without any due consideration on the adverse effects on poor communities, the Fisheries Code is an additional burden that poses a death sentence to their livelihood.

Related story: Navotas fisherfolk hold fluvial protest vs. reclamation, demolition
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