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The Online Magazine for Sustainable Seas
July 1998 Vol. 1 No. 7

The Wall
Small fishers in some southern towns of Bohol found few tulingan (tuna) fish to catch in what was supposed to be the peak tulingan season. What kept the fish from making their seasonal journey to once rich tulingan grounds?

By Stuart Green






The months of March, April, May and June are the peak fishing months for most fishers in the southern parts of Bohol. These four months are what is known locally as ting tulingan, roughly translated as "peak seasonal ‘run’" of the tuna family fishes for Bohol, most especially those areas with deep-sea fisheries close to the shore, that is, in the Cebu strait, Bohol strait, etc. When asked why this is so, local fishers give many answers, all of them based on the environment or nature. "The sea is calm." Or, "The sea is warm, so fish rise to the surface." Or, "The fish have stopped hiding in the deep because of the warm weather." Or even, "Because of the weather, fish are hungry and thus easier to catch." But however you ask them the question, and whatever answer they may give, the fishers invariably confirm that these are the peak months for fishing in Bohol – in the more southern parts of the province at least!

So why was it that, this last season, very few fish were caught in the Cebu strait, from the municipality of Maribojoc going north up through Bohol?

Initially, everyone thought that it was just another El Niño phenomenon. Then, in late April, news broke that the tulingan run was on its way up from northern Mindanao/Siquijor. By May, the fish were close to Panglao in the south of Bohol. Those with motor boats then started to make their way down towards Panglao every night to catch the tulingan and came back with good quantities. Meanwhile, the smaller fishers with un-powered boats waited patiently as they have done every year at this time for the arrival of the tulingan.

By the second week of May, tulingan began arriving in Bohol markets in such large quantities they sold for P10-15 a kilo! But still the tulingan was not coming up from Panglao. A few short conversations with the fisherfolk revealed the cause: it wasn’t El Niño after all, but a phenomenon relatively new to Bohol called ‘commercial fishing.’

The tulingan were literally stuck in the middle of Pamilacan and Balicasag islands in the south of Bohol. Once they arrived there every night they were aggregated by light or fish aggregation devices or detected with sonar or fish finder, and harvested. As one fisher said, the sea looked so pretty at night, sparkling like a big city with superlights and shiners -- boats operating in the area carried up to ten 200kW bulbs above the water and one or two more dropped deep into the water.

A commercial fishing boat called "likom-likom" is seen operating in the municipal waters of Loon, Bohol. (Photo by Stuart Green)
  When all the fish were aggregated, a series of Lan-sas or Likom boats came into the area to harvest them. This was very efficiently done, catching a large number of the fish and, as they put it, "hitting the jackpot". The commercial fishers "hit the jackpot" rather regularly, sometimes landing up to 250 banyera (basket) of fish. With 40 kg per banyera, that amounted to a good 10,000 kg of fish in one night. (They call this luck, or swerte, never mind that having a big net, lots of lights and a big fishing boat is not really luck.)

Some nights in May, there were close to 10 commercial boats plying for their "jackpot", and this carried on for most of the month and until the first week of June. In the last week of May, a kilo of tulingan straight from the ‘causeway’ sold for only P3 – if you waited awhile, you could have it for free! In fact, in not a few instances, tulingan was being thrown away because there was so much of it.

Needless to say, commercial fishers did very well. They made enough money, perhaps enough to buy a new sonar or fish finder or a new net or even a new boat to make sure that they would be able to harvest more next year. The one thing that we all seem to have forgotten is that fish are a biologically renewable resource. Stocks fluctuate and no stock is ever guaranteed especially if fish are being extracted as fast and as massively as they are in Bohol.

Also, let us not forget that all this harvesting happened within about 3 km only of Tagbilaran City and about 1 km from Pamilacan Island. Some of the commercial boats did not even come from Bohol – some came from Cagayan de Oro, Leyte and many from Bacolod and Cebu. It is, according to Philippine law, illegal for boats over 3 GT to be within 15 km of the coastline, yet there they were within a kilometer of Panglao only!

Meanwhile, the fishers in Loon, Calape and Maribojoc, and from Loay to Garcia Hernandez -- those without motor boats -- could just listen to the stories and wait in the hope that the fish would come up to their fishing grounds. They waited in vain. The commercial fishers and the light boats had built a very neat trap that only a few fish could penetrate.

Maybe next year the small fishers will get swerte (lucky) and hit the jackpot. And maybe those commercial fishers who continue to flaunt the law will be arrested, fined and banned from fishing in municipal waters.

Breaking the Barrier

Migratory fishes are notoriously difficult to manage because they do not stay confined within political boundaries and also because of their annual abundance and aggregations. Nevertheless, a seriously enforced ban on commercial fishing within Bohol municipal waters would go a long way to minimizing the problem. Those involved must be made to understand that fisheries development is not about buying more and more fishing boats and high technology gears which are expensive to run and maintain. They must be made to see that fisheries development is about keeping the fishery small and well managed, enabling everyone to make a living and a good profit, while ensuring that the fish stocks come back year after year. They must be made to realize that investing large amounts of money in fishing boats is not profitable in the long term, if all the fish were harvested and there is nothing left with which to replenish stocks, as is happening the world over.

There is a need for a standardization of laws all around Bohol, and each municipality needs to declare and somehow pinpoint and delineate its boundaries. Certain types of fishing gear also need to be banned, especially the fine mesh nets used to catch juvenile tunas (locally called pirit pirit), of which thousands of kilos were harvested in 1997 in Bohol. One encouraging development: the newly formed Bohol Environment Management Office is planning to do a workshop on municipal law standardization in Bohol within the year.

Commercial fishers from outside of Bohol should in some way be managed, or at least restricted within commercial waters. Though some are registered in Bohol, they still are not allowed by law to fish within Bohol’s municipal waters. It is also important to keep a lid on their technological investments, such as fish finders, power blocks and larger boats, so as not to induce "economic overfishing". (Economic overfishing is when the total investment in terms of boats, gears and technologies come to more than the total quantity of fish possible for harvest within the waters multiplied by the price of fish on the market.)

Research must be done on the quantity of fish being caught, what types, when and where they are spawning, etc. This will help identify trends and provide basis for a rough analysis or situationer.

The Philippine National Police Maritime Command and the Navy have been doing a noble job of arresting the commercial fishers, but because of lack of resources, they have been rather overextended. As an incentive, could their offices receive a certain percentage from the fine paid by violators? Or could somebody perhaps sponsor a boat for them?

There should be some restrictions on the use of high technologies such as fish finders and sonars, as well as restrictions on the use of light boats and how much light they can use. The shiners could be completely banned from municipal waters, as has already been done in Southern Leyte. A ceiling or limit on how many lights should be used within municipal waters should be legislated for.



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