SINDANGAN, PHILIPPINES — The race to feed Asia’s growing population has led to dangerous overfishing near coastlines around the Pacific. As fish stocks near the shore decline, fishermen are trying to boost their catches with techniques that can have dire consequences on species' ability to reproduce.
In the southern Philippines fishing town of Sindangan a certain scene is becoming more common across Asia, with soaring fish prices and falling wild fish catches.
A fisherman says more fishing boats are depleting the region’s once-healthy fish stocks. Across the South China Sea, near-shore fish catches have declined since the 1980s, pushing fishermen to go offshore with bigger boats.
As the catches fall, United Nations fisheries official Benjamin Francisco said fishermen desperately search for tactics to boost their haul.
“Some of them have degrees of destructive impact - the use of fine mesh net, the use of dynamite explosives for fishing - and other fishing gear… that catches juveniles or those that harvest maturing spawning stocks," said Francisco.
Such tactics degrade some species’ ability to regenerate. To tackle the problem, Francisco has been promoting a licensing system to regulate the number of boats on the water.
Asia’s fishing fleets remain the world’s largest, accounting for nearly three million of the world’s four million fishing vessels. And by most accounts those numbers are increasing.
In Hong Kong, there are even more ambitious efforts aimed at regulating fleets, banning trawling near the shore and spending more than $200 million to boost catches by small fishermen. So Ping-man of the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department is optimistic about their impact.
“…The catch value per unit effort will increase, almost doubling in 25 years time,” he said.
Hong Kong’s measures are costly and out of reach for other countries in Asia.
"The issues are deeply rooted in poverty, the inability of local government to respond immediately, insufficiency of funds," said Francisco.
Sindangan town's fish warden, Julie Buot, said most of the fishermen here use fine mesh nets - gear that has been banned for years because it catches very young fish.
Wilfredo Ortega feeds a family of nine children from small-scale fishing. As monsoon winds begin to hammer the seas, a last-ditch fishing excursion, earlier in the day, resulted in a catch worth only half a dollar.
"In these months, it’s quite tight [difficult]. We can only save [money] during the months of November, December, January. We can save by catching young sardines," said Ortega.
The young sardines may sustain Ortega’s family now, but the catches today mean fewer mature fish tomorrow - and an even riskier future for those who depend on fishing as a last resort.