Thursday, April 12, 2007

Fish be with you

Happy Easter!

Are they poor because they are fishers? Or are they fishers because they are poor? These questions of causality sum up the concerns of international fish experts—scientists, academics, government and NGO workers—who were in conference two days ago.

Easter week opened with fish and the poor on top of the agenda of the International Conference on Fisheries and Poverty. The discussions on the theme “Poverty Reduction Through Sustainable Fisheries” zeroed in on emerging policy and governance issues in Southeast Asia.

With the glow of Eastertide still washing over the land, I couldn’t help thinking that the first Pope was a fisherman. Fish—ichthys—was a sign used by the early Christians. May I digress by saying that I remember “Ichthys”, the weekly militant (okay, subversive) underground church publication that I was involved in during the martial law years. The Marcos military never found the catacomb where “Ichthys” was coming from.
Fish has been a staple since the dawn of time. Fish signs and symbols are very much a part of civilizations, and fishing a way of life for many people all over the world. So important is this human activity that it is even romanticized in literary works.

Today, the planet’s bodies of water cannot simply be left on their own to naturally grow all the fish we need the way they did in the days of yore. Feeding the planet and its present inhabitants means finding ways to increase food yield.

In this age of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, sustainable fish production as a source of livelihood for the teeming poor and as a source of protein for human consumption could spell the difference in narrowing the yawning social divides. There is something better than subsistence fishing. And it is not sport fishing.

Sustainable fisheries is the key, the fish experts say. Sad to say, the fisheries sector remains neglected in the research and development department. Here are some of the questions raised at the conference. How dependent are the poor in fisheries? How poor are the households that depend on fisheries? Can fisheries offer sustainable livelihoods for the poor? What policies, institutions and technologies are needed to spread and sustain the gains for the poor?

I ask why is fishing synonymous with poverty? From capture fishing to fisheries or fish farming—is this an answer?

The conference, organized by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), WorldFish Center and the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development (PCAMRD) presented evidence on why fisheries for the poor (not just for the big capitalists) could change lives and communities.

I am mainly a fish eater (90 percent of the protein in my fridge is fish) and coming from a coastal town known for great fish, I have no craving for meat. I am interested in the fish issue.

Dr. Natasja Sheriff of the WorldFish Center based in Malaysia (the center used to be in the Philippines) described fishers as often marginalized and with few occupational alternatives. Her topic was “Fish and the Poor”. Fishers are often portrayed as the poorest of the poor, she said, with fishing as their occupation of last resort. She stressed that recently “the focus has shifted away from economic issues (low income) and biological issues (overexploitation) to a new current paradigm which proposes a greater emphasis on the role of socio-institutional mechanisms which govern access to fisheries resources as a critical step to addressing vulnerability and poverty in fisheries.”

I have been covering developmental issues that concern the poor for quite some time and, it seems, fisheries for the poor, has not caught fire. Land(lessness) and poverty issues as advocacies are commonplace, but not fish-lessness. I learn about and get to see the greening of the horizon through sustainable agriculture and all that, but sustainable fisheries, hardly. And yet fishing and fisheries are still within the domain of agriculture.

I know NGOs that help subsistence fishermen, but the poverty issues they tackle are often linked to inaccessibility to fishing areas (pearl farms with armed guards), their fight against destructive fishing and big trawlers. I wish the conference had invited more NGO types. But it was good to listen to the different country reports and how “fish and the poor” figure in different Southeast Asian countries.

Dr. Westly Rosario, director of the National Fisheries Research and Development Institute of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources presented the Philippine experience. Seaweeds, bangus and tilapia are the Philippines’ top three aquatic produce, he said. He enumerated three major issues related to “fish and the poor”, namely, too much open access to marine resources, population, and government inability to address problems.

Dr. Madan Dey, regional director of WorldFish Center said that the supply and demand for fish have changed dramatically during the last three decades. Global demand for fish has rapidly increased with the increase in population and per capita income. There has been rapid growth in production and global trade. The fastest growing component is aquaculture, while capture fisheries have remained generally stagnant.

Citing 2006 Food and Agriculture Organization statistics, Dey said Asia is the leading contributor to this expansion, accounting for over 63 percent of total fish production, and as much as 90 percent of all aquaculture output.

But why have Asian fishers remained generally poor? Will things change when fishers turn fish farmers?