The lure of Mindoro fishermen’s ancient ways

MAMBURAO, Occidental Mindoro—Marginal fishermen in Mindoro Strait are on a roll in the the world’s yellow fin market, attracting buyers with their ancient practice of slapping the sea with their lines and beating expensive commercial operations using modern equipment such as sonars, sensors and nets. 

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said the handline fisherman, who roam the Strait on outrigger boats, catch 70-kilo yellow fin tuna using “kawil” (hook, line and sinker), attracting pelagic fish such as tuna, marlin and mahi-mahi (dolphin fish) in their “payaw” or fish aggregating device.

Weigh in. Fishermen weighs their yellow-fin
tuna catch from the Mindoro Strait.
“Tuna buyers from European and Middle East countries as well as Japan and the United States are coming to Mamburao in droves. Mamburao is now the de facto tuna capital of the Philippines,” said Joselito Tiongson, site manager of the WWF.

Commercial fishing operation involved catching tuna in large volumes using powerful boats and nets. But the large quantity and the manner of hauling in the fish result in lacerations and bruises.

The Mindoro handline fishermen, the typical lonely figures in the open sea, rely only on their wits and their kawil to pull in the fish. Their payaws, bamboo rafts attached with palm or coconut fronds and tethered to the sea floor with concrete blocks, provide shelter to the fish and within reach of their lines. Tiongson said the flesh of yellow-fin tuna caught by “kawil” remain intact and because each fish is caught individually it hardly has any bruises on the body — buyers from different parts of the world swear they taste better.

“Foreigners do not buy yellow fins caught by commercial fishermen using nets because their flesh are damaged. They are usually caught in big quantities,” Tiongson said.

General Santos City in Mindanao still holds the title as “tuna capital” because it hosts six of the eight tuna canneries in the country but the area is “overfished” and commercial fishers have to go to the high seas of Solomon Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Timore Leste, and Indonesia to look for yellow fins, Tiongson said.

He said General Santos has the canneries, cold storage and infrastructure facilities, but” Mamburao is the tuna growth area and the first municipality in the Philippines to receive a certification from the European Union for conforming to its standards for tuna exports.”

Municipal Agriculturist Sunshine Singun said Mamburao makes an annual harvest of 600,000 metric tons, which makes it the fifth among the top 10 tuna producers in the world.

The WWF and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR)said Mamburao should serve as model for its use of handline fishing, which could be one of the best ways to sustain fish population in the seas.

“Using nets can lead to over-fishing because even the baby tuna are trapped and pulled in,” BFAR Director Asis Perez said.

Personalized handling. A fisherman carries
on his shouldera 70-kilo yellow-fin tuna to
the collecting station. ROBERT EVORA
Roberto Cueto, 45, of Barangay Tayamaan, who has been fishing at the Mindoro Strait for the past 29 years, said he catches 70-kilo bariles from a shallow depth of 20 to 30 meters.

“We usually fish within 15 kilometers off Mamburao’s municipal waters within the Mindoro Strait. If we’re lucky, we go home the followng day with a good catch of 200 kilos of tuna,” said Cueto, who is Vice president of the 200-member Tuna Fishers Association of Mamburao.

Cueto said their catch is not good during full moon because Bariles is spread out, and the fishermen have to go out as far as the West Philippines Sea, 70 nautical miles from municipal waters, to look for tuna. 

“If we fish within the municpal waters, we return home the following morning. If we go as far as the West Philippines Sea, we stay there from five to six days,” Cueto said.

Mamburao Mayor Voltaire Villarosa said the town holds an annual “Tuna Tonelada Festival” as part of their tuna sustainability program, which coincides with the Lenten Season when Filipinos eat only fish and vegetables during Lenten fridays.

“Aside from being the top five of the world’s fishing nation, the Philippines is a responsible fishing nation,” Villarosa said. 

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