By Imee Charlee C. Delavin, Reporter

EU-inspired amendments to fisheries code likely to ‘kill’ industry, boat operators claim

Posted on December 17, 2014

COMMERCIAL fishing boat operators asked Malacañang to further review the proposed amendments to the Philippine Fisheries Code, claiming that the steep penalties for violations and the new-equipment requirements could “kill” the industry.

In an appeal submitted to the Office of the President, the Alliance of Philippine Fishing Federations, Inc. -- composed of operators of commercial fishing vessels -- tagged the 2014 Amendments to the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 as “oppressive, confiscatory, cruel and unusual.”

Resistance to the amendments represents a potential hurdle to Philippine efforts to make its fishing practices compliant with international conventions. The compliance effort comes in the face of European Union (EU) threats to ban imports of Philippine fish if the Code is not brought up to standard.

“We believe your intention for the fishing industry is noble. But as you are about to approve the 2014 Amendments to the Philippines Fisheries Code (Republic Act 8550) may not achieve the result envisioned for the fishing industry, and may kill the commercial fishing industry.”

Earlier, the group said the proposal, awaiting the President’s signature -- among others, forces operators of commercial vessels to invest in monitoring equipment that is expensive to procure and maintain.

Under the proposal, fishing vessels will be required to install vessel monitoring devices. The Alliance of Philippine Fishing Federations, Inc., has said maintenance of such will cost over P20,000 to P240,000 a month.

The group also said while fishermen caught using dynamite and cyanide face an administrative penalty equivalent to only three times the value of their catch, commercial fishing companies suspected of violating the fisheries code would face penalties equivalent to seven times the value of their catch, and worse, vessel owners could face imprisonment even for acts they did not personally commit.

“The amendment violates the right to equal protection of the law. Commercial fishermen using sustainable fishing methods are punished worse than fishermen using dynamite and cyanide,” the Alliance of Philippine Fishing Federations, Inc., said in its appeal.

They also noted that the proposed amendments violate the “presumption of innocence until proven guilty” since administrative fines are imposed immediately even before criminal conviction; it also denies the right to even be heard by the courts as the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) will be granted immunity from suits and the courts may not issue a temporary restraining order/injunction against the BFAR.

The commercial fishing group also said the amendments “will create a superbody with no accountability”, as punitive sanctions await anyone who tries to question BFAR’s abuses and the BFAR will act as “judge, jury and executioner” with their funds, “beyond the reach of the Commission on Audit”.

Malacañang officials could not be reached for comment.

BFAR Director Asis G. Perez has maintained the proposed amendments are “part of the responsibility of those who want to use marine resources.”

“This is meant especially to control the proliferation of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. We need to make the penalties proportional to the benefits they (fishing vessel operators) gain from the sea. The imposition of higher penalties would ensure that no one would violate the law,” Mr. Perez has said previously.

The Senate approved its version of the Fisheries Code amendments (Senate Bill 2414) last Oct. 28, while the House of Representatives approved House Bill 4536 in June which seeks to strengthen the BFAR’s regulatory and enforcement functions.

Congress has said that the amendments will help the country comply with international conventions and avoid a possible ban by the EU on marine and fisheries products over the Philippines’ failure to fulfill its maritime duties to curb illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Senators earlier noted the measure should be enacted by year’s end, warning that failure to act on it would result in the blacklisting of all marine and fisheries products in the 28-nation EU market, whose fish imports from the Philippines amounted to €165 million (around P9.8 billion at the time) in 2013. BFAR data showed the fisheries sector accounts for some 2.1% of the country’s gross domestic product.

Under the measure, a fine of P2.5 million to P10 million, or twice the value of the catch, whichever is higher, would be imposed on large-scale commercial IUU fishing. On the other hand, for medium-scale and small-scale fishing, the fines are P250,000 to P2 million, and P50,000 to P200,000, respectively.

The Fisheries Code, enacted in 1997, currently imposes fines ranging from P100,000 to P500,000.

The bill states that it shall be unlawful for any foreign person, corporation or entity to fish or operate any fishing vessel in Philippine waters, and classifies it as poaching. Violators would be fined P1 million for small-scale, P5 million for medium-scale, or P10 million for large-scale fishing, or twice the value of the catch whichever is higher.

Aside from providing for stricter punitive measures, the revised Fisheries Code would also expand its coverage to all Philippine-flagged fishing vessels operating outside the country’s territory, such as in the high seas, which are not part of any state and in waters of coastal states. The term illegal fishing would also cover Philippine-flagged vessels in another state violating its laws, as well as foreign-flagged vessels in Philippine territory that violate local laws.

BFAR will be tasked with training and deployment of fisheries observers, hearing of administrative cases, determining sanctions, initiating prosecution, and imposing fees for monitoring and surveillance of fishing vessels upon prior consultation with stakeholders.

The agency will also be in charge of regulating the conservation and management of threatened living marine resources.

The EU issued a so-called “yellow warning” to the Philippines and Papua New Guinea in June, directing these two countries to address rampant illegal fishing in their waters within six months.

The EU estimates that IUU fishing nets €10 billion a year. The 11 million to 26 million tons of fish caught illegally each year is equivalent to around 15% of the world’s catch. It most recently listed in November 2013 the countries of Belize, Cambodia and Guinea as non-cooperative countries in the fight against IUU fishing.