Local fishermen caught between the pros and cons of traceability

Local fishermen caught between the pros and cons of traceability

Jason Albasi on his small tuna boat where he has just installed a catch tracking and documentation device with the support of an international organisation.

(Biel Calderón)

It was on TV that Jason Albasi, a small-scale fisherman from the southern Philippines, first heard that he would probably have to install a new type of device on his boat to enable the government to keep track of his vessel at all times. “They said it was something we would all have to install in the near future,” recalls the Filipino fisherman.

Albasi looked into the matter and found that the devices offered many advantages: greater security during his long journeys out at sea, the ability to control the temperature of the ice and, above all, the whole chain of information that customers now require of him. There was just one problem, the costs associated with the technology.

Consumers around the world are increasingly asking the fishing industry for more information about the source of the fish they eat, after years of scandals exposing the use of slave labour and the overexploitation of fish stocks.

In 2015, an investigation by Associated Press revealed that at least 2,000 Thai and Burmese fishermen had been trafficked to vessels in Indonesia, where they had been held by force for periods of more than 10 years.

“Buyers are increasingly asking us for information about where we have fished,” says Albasi. For him, there is no escape, given that he mainly fishes the large tuna for which the best customers are based in the highly demanding countries of the west or Japan and Korea.

But adapting to changing international markets is no easy task for Albasi, with his small traditional boat in which the three or four fishermen who go out to sea with him for 10 days – or even two weeks – have to huddle together to avoid falling overboard.

Catch documentation and traceability systems are out of reach for small-scale fishermen like him, given their cost and their technical complexity, explains Raúl González, spokesperson for the Alliance of Tuna Handliners in the southern city of General Santos.

“We not only have to look at ensuring traceability but also at ensuring the survival of these fishermen,” says González. “If there is no premium price [for catches made by vessels with integrated traceability systems], it will just be another onus that comes without any added benefit.”

The technology allows data to be recorded on where each fish is caught at the very moment it is caught and to be sent directly to an electronic system that buyers should then be able to access. But it relies on complex services, generally provided by private companies supporting this data collection process, which can cost hundreds of dollars a month in subscription charges, too high a price for fishers like Albasi, who earn as little as 15,000 pesos a month (around €250 or US$287).

They will soon, however, be left with no other choice if they want to keep fishing. The Philippine government has recently adopted new legislation requiring all fishing vessels to install a Vessel Monitoring System (VMS), which records their movements. The government is also developing new regulations requiring the fishing industry to provide information on each catch. “Times are changing. There are a lot of new rules and regulations now,” says González. “Fish do not depend on technology. The only reason we have to install these systems are the laws.”

The fishers’ spokesperson nonetheless acknowledges that tracking systems could help to reduce the illegal catches that are decimating the fish stocks in General Santos and forcing fishers to make increasingly long and dangerous trips. “It is more dangerous for us to travel with our small boats than it would be if we had big boats,” says Gonzalez. “The risk is greater when we are faced with storms or other dangers.”

The danger is even more critical for tuna fishers, as their species are so sought after that they are rapidly being depleted. As reported by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), approximately 43 per cent of the world’s tuna stocks were fished at unsustainable levels in 2015.

“The big boats have too many FADs [Fish Aggregating Devices], and they deplete the sea,” says González. These devices are now used intensively by large fishing vessels, being highly-productive, but also highly-controversial, given their heavy environmental impact.

Bridging the gap

Leaving traceability systems out of the reach of small-scale fishermen means leaving behind almost half of the industry, as according to FAO figures, around 90 per cent of it is made up of small-scale, independent fishers, who catch half of the fish consumed worldwide.

Helping to bridge the gap, the Filipino company Futuristic Aviation and Maritime Enterprise (FAME) identified the possibility of adapting the complex tracking systems used by aircraft and vessels and simplifying them, to bring down the cost. “Complying with the new legislation doesn’t pose much of a problem for the big vessels, but it’s more complicated for the smaller ones,” says the CEO of FAME, Arcelio Fetizana Jr.

The company has developed a transponder, a small device that works with radio frequencies, which not only enables fishers to comply with the regulations on vessel tracking but also to provide the product traceability required by consumers. “We initially developed it as a tracking and monitoring system, but we also then saw the need for [it to include a system for] catch documentation,” says Fetizana.

The major difference with other systems of this kind, says Fetizana, is the cost: the subscription fee is just 800 pesos a month (around €13.40, US$15.30). Although the cost is lower, many fishermen are nonetheless still reluctant to invest in a technology that gives them no assurance of an immediate return, Fetizana goes on to explain. Other see it as too complex a process that will only complicate their task when out at sea. “These systems are a challenge for fishers. If they are simple, they are more likely to use them. If not, they will just represent an added burden for them,” says González.

It is with this in mind that a number of organisations are carrying out pilot projects, to give local fishers easier access to the technology. Albasi, for instance, was able to install his device thanks to an initiative funded by the United States development cooperation agency, USAID, which is covering the operating costs for the first year. Twenty-five other fishers from General Santos have also benefitted from the pilot project.

Without this help, Albasi, like most other small-scale fishers, would not have been able to access the technology and may have had to look for another source of income. “Tuna fishing is becoming increasingly difficult. There is less and less of it and we are asked for more and more,” says Albasi.

This is what happened in Bula, a small district close to where Albasi lives, where fishers had to abandon their boats when the government made the first changes in the environmental regulations for fishing vessels in 2010. “It was too expensive to adapt our boats to the new requirements,” says Leony D. Gempero, one of the fishermen affected. His community found a solution in algaculture, a less risky and more profitable activity.

But some are highlighting the risks of small-scale fishers being left behind by the new traceability rules and, like in Bula, having to turn to other sectors. “These [small] fishermen are the most sustainable there can be in the tuna industry,” says González. “It is essential they be supported, so that they can comply with the regulations if we want the industry to be sustainable.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.