No tuna, no luck

Heavy rain, destructive hurricanes and tuna fleeing to cooler ­waters — for fishermen in the Philippines, climate change has long been  a reality. But giving up is not an option.

Ernesto Buasan fiddles with a pack of cigarettes and bites his lower lip. The 59-year-old is nervous. He is sitting on a beige plastic chair in front of a small office where he just ­handed in a piece of paper. „Forty-two and a half kilograms,“ it read. That‘s what the scale across the street had recorded. It is the weight of Ernesto Buasan‘s catch from last night. It had taken two men to hoist the huge tuna onto the scale.
While the day in the port district of Tabaco is just beginning, Buasan is already longing for a break. He spent the entire night at sea and had reached Tabacoʼs harbour at six in the morn­ing — two large dolphinfish and the yellowfin tuna weighing more than 40 kilograms in tow. He has no idea how much money heʼll earn with his catch. The woman in the office who took the note determines the prices. „It was a good night,“ Buasan says. But before today, he said, he hadn't caught a single fish for ten days. „I had to stay home on San Miguel and hope for good weather.“

Photo: Alo Lantin

If the sea is too rough, the fishermen have to stay on land

A cold front was moving through the Gulf of Lagonoy, which is why no one had dared to venture out onto the rough sea. The waves were beating too high for the traditional fishermenʼs canoes. The heavy rain and strong winds were unusual for this time of year — and made it impossible for the men to go out in their narrow boats to earn their livelihoods. Twenty years ago, Ernesto Buasan says, we would never have had weather like this. Flordeliza Barasona comes out of the office where Buasan is waiting and turns to him. The 59-year-old runs a „casa“ in the port of Tabaco, where fishermen sell her their catch.

Photo: Alo Lantin

Photo: Alo Lantin

„When my children were still at school, I was one of the women who gutted the fish the men had caught,“ the accountant says. „But I wanted my own business.“ As soon as the youngest of her five children finished school, Flordeliza Barasona separated from her husband and opened her „casa,“ where she also sells fishing supplies like bait, hooks and fishing line. She keeps meticulous notes of each fisherman´s catch in spiral notebooks, noting date, weight and price. The colorful notebooks are stacked on a shelf by her desk. Ernesto Buasan‘s red book lies open next to the calculator that Barasona uses to figure out prices.

Climate change is forcing fish move to cooler waters

To see a yellowfin tuna hooked on a local fishermanʼs line has become a rarity in the Gulf of Lagonoy. Due to climate change, the temperature of the Philippine Sea has risen in recent years. Schools of tuna have moved away from the shorelines and into deeper, cooler waters. The ideal temperature for these fish is between a low of 16.5 and a maximum of 28.9 degrees celsius.

Photo: Alo Lantin

For handline fishermen like Ernesto Buasan, the predatory fish with the yellow dorsal fins are now more difficult to reach: their fishing technique is such that they use only one fishing line — held in their hands. Going further out to sea to follow the fish is risky and laborious. They have to travel longer and farther — in narrow boats not built for deeper waters.

Photo: Alo Lantin

Overfishing in the region doesnʼt help. On the high seas, large boats are underway, using longlines, seiners, fish aggregating devices (FADs) and drift nets. The longlines are studded with thousands of hooks and seiners encircle entire schools of fish. The FADs take advantage of the tunaʼs innate tendency to aggregate around floating objects, therefore allowing hundreds of fish to be caught at one time. These industrial fishing methods endanger not only the tuna population, but also those of other species. Nets entangle animals that are far too young and often include sharks, rays, turtles, dolphins and seagulls. Conservationists are active in the area, but that doesn't stop fishing fleets from setting sail. The demand for tuna from the Philippines is too great in Europe and other parts of the world, where it is used for sushi, ends up on frozen pizzas or is sold in cans.

Photo: Alo Lantin

Photo: Alo Lantin

Mangroves in danger — young fish, too

Dwindling fish stocks and the changing climate are also evident 85 kilometers northeast, on the other side of the Gulf of Lagonoy. Here in Batalay — a small village on the island province of Catanduanes — a ten-hectare mangrove area know as „Mangrove Eco Parc“ has been saved by a reforestation program. Because of rising sea levels, the trees are now endangered — along with a kilometer-long ecosystem that is home to countless species of birds, young fish and other aquatic animals.
Adela and Rufino Apostolero live in Batalay, just a few meters from the shore. She is 76 years old; her husband, a retired teacher, is 14 years her junior. Every day, Rufino steers a boat along the mangroves, checking underwater cages. He pulls crayfish out of the barred cages, a delicacy he will later sell for about eight euros per kilogramm. Collecting crayfish is an alternative to fishing tuna, which Apostolero has not yet completely given up.

Worst storm on Christmas

Adela doens't worry about her husband when he goes hunting. What did scare the couple, however, was Typhoon Nock-ten (known to the rest of the world as Nina). In 2016, on Christmas day, the worst storm in 56 years swept across the Philippines with winds of up to 260 kilometers per hour. The Apostoleros and their neighbors were evacuated and had to stay indoors in a hall for days. „When we came back, all that was left of our house was the roof — lying on the street,“ says Adela Apostolero.
„Another storm like that and we're homeless“
Rufino Apostolero
The couple used the entire advance on their pension to build a new house. „If another storm like that comes, we'll be homeless. We don‘t have any more money left,“ says the former teacher, smiling nonetheless. „We‘ll manage somehow. We‘ve had to repair the house before.“

Photo: Alo Lantin

One typhoon per month

Perhaps Filipinos seem to take things in stride because they are used to storms: on average, a typhoon rips through a community once a month. They aren't all as strong as Nina, but the Apostoleros believe the typhoons have become more dangerous in recent years. „Before, the water didn‘t come up to the house,“ says Adela Apostolero, „Now it happens more and more often.“
Scientific data proves the 76-year-old is right. Global warming is promoting climatic conditions under which these strong storms can develop. According to Oxfam, an international alliance of various aid organizations, the frequency of particularly strong typhoons in the Pacific region has more than doubled in the past 40 years, and their destructive power is likely to further increase in the future. The World Bank estimates that the amount of rain from the storms could also increase by one third - and with it the risk of flooding in the coastal regions. These developments are just as fatal for the mangrove forests in Batalay as they are for the people there: neither the trees nor the homes can withstand typhoons like Nina.

Sea levels near Manila already 80 centimeters higher

In the Philippines — the country with the longest coastline in the world — climate change is a reality. According to research by the „Correctiv“ network, the capital is already threatened by water. In the past 50 years, the sea level in Manila has risen by more than 80 centimeters — higher than in any other place in the world. A study by international climate researchers found that in the event of global warming by four degrees, a further rise of 63 centimeters is extremely likely.

Photo: Alo Lantin

The conditions on the Philippine coasts are becoming increasingly uncomfortable for the people who live and work there. And just as tuna is dissappearing, so is the livelihood of thousands of families. Nevertheless, the people from the Bicol region are optimistic. Instead of despairing, many are trying to adapt and are considering alternative ways to earn a living. Some, for example, augment their fishing income by opening a kiosk in their home — the additional money paying for their childen's school fees. Others offer carpentery services in the village when the weather is too bad to go out to sea. And those who continue to believe in tuna, despite everything, work extra hard and long to get quality catches within the changing environment.
This would not be possible, however, without help from external sources. The US non-profit organization „Rare”, for example, supports traditional fishing families. The nature conservation organization WWF is also active in the Gulf of Lagonoy, working together with local project partner "Tambuyog" for more sustainable tuna fishing. The team supports cooperation between handline fishermen, authorities and industry representatives. One goal is to get tuna from the region labelled as MSC, which would mean not only that fisherman could demand higher prices, but also that stocks would have an opportunity to recover. In addition, some coasts now have protected zones where fishing is prohibited. And many of the 5,500 fishermen involved in the project can now provide certifiactes with their catch, detailing time and place of fishing. Because these certificates are required in order to import to EU countries, they are vital for long-term success. To allow for the yellowfin tuna to recover, it is also now forbidden to catch fish weigh­ing less than 20 kilograms.

Photo: Alo Lantin

A big tuna at the end of the line washes away worries

The 42.5-kilo colossus that bit into Ernesto Buasanʼs hook weighs far more than that. It was the second largest tuna brought to Flordeliza Barasona's casa that morning. The 59-year-old carefully writes a few numbers in the red spiral notebook and hands Buasan the calculator so he can see the digits on display. The fisherman smiles with relief and thanks her: she offers him 9,775 pesos for his tuna — the equivalent of just under 169 euros — plus another 500 pesos (8,70 euros) for each of the two dolphinfish.

Photo: Sina Horsthemke

The fishermen receive the money in cash - as long as they don't have any outstanding debt with Barasona. „Many of them, if they donʼt have any money to spare and they need new nets or fuel for their boats, open up a tab,“ says the 59- year-old. "The men can pay me back later with fish, once they have caught some again."
Ernesto Buasan doesn't have any debt. He sets out towards his boat before the tide ­receeds and leaves it sandbanked. The tuna that took his bait at three oʼclock in the morning has ­washed away his and his family‘s worries. At least for now.

Yellowfin tuna facts

The yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) has a striking yellow dorsal fin and is at home in tropical waters. It is found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans at depths of up to 1,000 meters. Like other tuna species, the predatory fish covers many kilometers a day in pursuit of prey and is a fast swimmer, reaching speeds of up to 80 kilometers per hour. Due to their high muscle activity, tuna are the only fish (apart from swordfish) whose body temperature can be six to twelve degrees warmer than the water temperature. A yellowfin tuna lives to be about nine years old, can grow to a size of up to two meters and can weigh around 200 kilograms. The yellowfin tuna is an endangered species. Over the past 50 years, its biomass (which is how scientists determine the population of fish) in the Western and Central Pacific has shrunk by 70 percent. This is due to the increased demand for tuna: while in the 1960s and 1970s a maximum of 50,000 metric tons per year was enough to meet demand, in 2018 the catch was almost 700,000 metric tons, according to information from WWF.

What does an MSC seal mean?

The letters „MSC“ stand for „Marine Stewardship Council“, an independent, non-profit and international organization from London, which has been working for the certification of fisheries for more than 20 years. Fish bearing the blue seal comes from a fishery that meets the following environmental criteria: It does not lead to overfishing. It preserves the ecosystem. And it is part of a management system that takes into account laws and international standards.

Want more from  ?

Join azylo to get the latest stories from the author in your feed. Don’t miss a single story.

Recomended for you

View All
Back