Bicolano fishers act to conserve tuna

Along the coast of Tiwi in Albay, a group of fishermen’s wives mend fishnets as they wait for their husbands to return. It is June, the season for yellowfin tuna.

The sigil of a jumping bankulis or yellowfin tuna adorns this little
boy’s family boat. His future might very well depend on whether
WWF’s work keeps these oceanic giants jumping. (Gregg Yan / WWF)
The first of the bancas arrive, unloading a decent haul of pundahan or skipjack – small, striped tuna that have proven surprisingly resilient to commercial fishing. Others however return empty-handed while another disgorges a tub of galunggong or scad. Just one bankulis or yellowfin tuna has been landed, tipping the scales at 39 kilogrammes.

“The Lagonoy Gulf is the Bicol region’s richest tuna site – but it is heavily overfished,” explains Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources National Stock Assessment Project Head Virginia Olaño. “Two decades ago, fishers regularly caught large yellowfin. In 1998, a fisherman landed a 196-kilogramme giant, as long as a car and fat as a drum. Now yields are waning and yellowfin average just 18 to 35 kilogrammes – meaning juveniles have replaced adults.”

Though yellowfin tuna are highly-prized, they are more than mere seafood. Top predators in the marine food chain, they maintain the balance between oceanic predators and prey. “Today the Lagonoy Gulf’s most common fish are anchovies,” warns Olaño. “There aren’t enough predators to eat them – because we’ve eaten most of their predators.”

To stop overfishing and help manage existing tuna stocks in Bicol, the World Wide Fund for Nature, BFAR and the Philippine Council for Agriculture and Fisheries convened the first meeting of the Gulf of Lagonoy Tuna Fishers Federation, comprised of the coastal municipalities ringing the Lagonoy Gulf – 3,070-square kilometres of sea separating the Bicol mainland from the storm-swept island of Catanduanes. Over 500 people attended Bicol’s first large-scale gathering of fishers, held at the Lagman Auditorium in Bicol University’s Tabaco Campus.

Bankulis or yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) are the most highly-
prized fish in Bicol’s Lagonoy Gulf. A fisher shows off the lone, 39
kilogramme fish landed in Tiwi. Classified by the International Union
for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as near threatened, yellowfin
tuna sport metallic blue backs, golden flanks, silver bellies and
bright yellow fins. (Gregg Yan / WWF)
“We’ve waited three years to formalize this federation, which covers 2,000 tuna fishers in the Lagonoy Gulf,” says BFAR Assistant Regional Director Marjurie Grutas. “GLTFF aims to synergize fisheries management while optimizing cooperation, knowledge-sharing and enforcement. We aim to eliminate illegal fishing, minimize the capture of juvenile tuna and drive commercial fishers away from municipal waters – the three leading causes of overfishing.” 

Since 2011, WWF has been working to enhance yellowfin tuna management practices for 5,000 fishers in 112 tuna fishing villages around the Lagonoy Gulf and the coast of Occidental Mindoro.

WWF’s Public Private Partnership Programme Towards Sustainable Tuna has since organized tuna fishing associations in all 15 municipalities in the Lagonoy Gulf, plus six LGUs in the Mindoro Strait. It spearheaded the registration and licensing of tuna fishers, vessels and gear to minimize bycatch and illegal fishing, deployed 1,000 plastic tuna tags to make the fishery traceable, and completed a series of training sessions on proper tuna handling to ensure that exported tuna continually meet international quality standards.

PPTST harnesses market power and consumer demand to promote sustainably-caught tuna and support low-impact fishing methods like artisanal fishing with hand-line reels – better alternatives to commercial tuna long-lines, which stretch up to 80 kilometres and are rigged with up to 3,000 baited hooks.

Today, about 52 percent of the country’s fish exports come from tuna, which buoys the lives and livelihoods of millions of Filipinos. WWF’s Global Oceans Campaign, Sustain Our Seas, builds on decades of work to rekindle the health and productivity of the Earth’s oceans.

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