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Fewer bites for Philippine fishermen
by Staff Writers
Manila (AFP) July 8, 2011

Fisherman Rafael Mendoza spends his nights casting lines from his small motorised boat in Manila Bay with little hope of a big haul.

At the age of 62, the once-rich returns of the trade that paid for his seven children's school and college education have nearly disappeared.

"There used to be plenty for everyone to go around," Mendoza told AFP in his tiny fishing village of Daang Kalsada on the mouth of Manila Bayas as he picked through the measly haul of 60 small mackerel he had caught overnight.

"We used to catch hundreds of kilos (pounds) of fish of varied species... there used to be huge groupers and snappers."

Generations of fishermen have relied on the 1,994 square kilometre (769 mile) deep water bay for their livelihood, and it wasn't uncommon for them in the past to come to shore with their boats near to bursting with marine bounty.

But rapid and uncontrolled urban development around the bay -- which is the gateway to the country's political and economic centre -- has over the years led to severe pollution and degradation of the marine habitat.

Modern and destructive fishing methods, such as using cyanide and fine mesh nets, have also virtually obliterated spawning grounds.

Meanwhile, big commercial trawlers continue to violate a law meant to keep them at least 15 kilometres (nine miles) from the shoreline.

"There used to be huge groupers and snappers that we would sell for thousands of pesos," Mendoza said, adding that restaurants and buyers in the lucrative export market once turned to them for supply.

The sad state of Manila Bay is being repeated across the Philippines, which international experts and scientists regard as having one of the most biodiverse marine ecosystems in the world.

Its southern waters merge with those of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea to form what is known as the Coral Triangle, an area so rich in corals and marine life that is nicknamed the "Amazon of the seas".

But weak enforcement of laws protecting the Philippines' environment and marine life are allowing unsustainable fishing methods to prosper, experts said.

"We've already exceeded our maximum sustainable yield in fishing," World Wildlife Fund-Philippines president Jose Maria Lorenzo Tan told AFP.

He said that while there was nothing wrong with harvesting nature's bounty, aquatic resources needed to be given time to replenish.

Dante Dalabajan, policy and research officer at British charity Oxfam, said both small and industrial fishermen needed to follow sustainable fishing methods, with climate change also contributing to dropping yields.

As sudden changes in sea temperatures affect the way fish migrate and spawn, there will be lower yields, according to Dalabajan, a view shared by many environmental experts around the world.

"What is critical is for our fishermen to manage their resources better, so they can protect their food security when that time comes," Dalabajan said.

He said one important measure would be to give small-scale fishermen more control over managing coastal areas, while another would simply be for the government to exert greater effort in protecting fishing grounds.

But fisherman Mendoza and his wife of 37 years, Rosario, said they were worried any intervention may be too late for them.

They said many of their neighbours in Daang Kalsada, a mostly poor rural village about 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Manila, had already hung up their lines and nets.

Some had sought work in factories that had sprouted near the town in recent years, while others had left to join the millions of Filipinos labouring abroad to seek their fortune.

The Mendozas and some of the other remaining fishermen have joined with non-government organisations to educate other mostly poor villagers in the area about the benefits of protecting the sea.

Some of the fishermen sit in to listen, but others -- because they are pressured to feed their families -- still resort to destructive ways of catching fish.

"Whatever awareness campaigns we launch, if our fellow fishermen themselves do not act, nothing will happen," said Mendoza, who now has to travel more than a hundred kilometres into open sea in an effort to catch decent fish.

"We are going hungry. We don't know any other livelihood, and we may be forced to get dole outs (government welfare) soon."

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