By: Laura Villadiego. General Santos (Philippines)

The fisherman Harry Bibat preparing to fish. Photo: Biel Calderón/

The fishing industry is increasingly globalized and fish travel more and more kilometers, but the sector is moving towards greater transparency.

Harry Bibat went fishing for the first time when he was only 10 years old. Then he helped his father to capture by hand the heavy tuna that crossed the waters of General Santos, in the south of the Philippines, during their migrations. At that time the task was simple. The fish were abundant near the coast, so the trips were short and not very dangerous. Later, they sold them in the local market and back to the sea.

Today, twenty-five years later, Bibat’s work is little like what he did with his father. His trips are getting longer, “because there is no tuna near the coast,” says Bibat, and what he catches does not stay in local markets anymore; After spending a few hours in the port of General Santos, the center of the Philippine tuna trade, the fish ends up in a refrigerated airplane heading to the United States, Japan or Europe. “The life of a fisherman is dangerous,” says Bibat, who captures the large tuna so coveted in the West. “When we go out to sea, we have one foot in the grave.”

Globalization is not something new in the fish industry, says the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), but it has deepened during the last decades, in which international trade has increased more. than the production. Thus, fish such as salmon or tuna, which were previously rare in countries where there were no nearby fishing grounds, have become popular and fish now travel more kilometers than ever.

Spain is key in this international trade, and in 2016, it was the fourth largest importer of fish in the world, only behind giants such as the United States, Japan and China, and, according to a 2011 Friends of the Earth report, fish It is the food for human consumption that more kilométros travels in Spain, with an average of more than 6,400 kilometers. The trend is also exacerbated in times like Christmas, where fish is usually one of the star dishes of the tables on key days.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, the story was different,” says Rosana Bernadette Contreras, executive director of the Federation of Fishing Industries of the Soccsksargen region, which is in General Santos City. “Now there are more actors and fewer resources. We have to import fish because there is not enough for the canning industry. ”

The consequences of this consumption model go beyond an increase in the ships and planes that transport the merchandise. The fishing industry has become a difficult sector to control in which it is often not known where the product comes from and if it has been caught legally. Thus, according to the FAO, illegal fishing now reaches 26 million tons of fish and represents an income of between 10,000 and 23,000 million dollars. However, it is also “one of the greatest threats to marine ecosystems,” says the organization, because it undermines the possibilities of “managing fisheries resources in a sustainable manner”.

The lack of control has also allowed large fishing boats to exploit the fishermen. Thus, in 2015, an investigation by the Associated Press (AP) revealed that thousands of fishermen had been trafficked from Thailand to ships operating in Indonesian waters and were being held against their will and in conditions analogous to those of slavery. More than 2000 slaves were released and both Indonesia and Thailand had to reform their fishing industries to ensure greater control. Other organizations, such as Greenpeace, have published reports claiming that these practices are still common in the Asian industry.

Consumers more aware

The scandal over slavery was a radical change in the sector; Consumers in countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom began to demand more information about the origin of what they bought. “The markets are asking us to have more transparency, to tell them where the fish comes from,” explains Contreras.

However, on the high seas, where you can only access satellite signals, the task is complex. During the last years several companies have developed different ship tracking systems with different technologies that allow to know where the ship is and whether it is fishing or not. Some also include registration systems for each of the fish that are caught. “For each of the fish, the information is entered into the system and recorded so that anyone in the production chain can know where it comes from” says Arcelio Fetinazan Jr., president of FAME, a Philippine company that has developed a of these systems.

 

The port of General Santos, where Harry Bibat unloads his catches and tuna center of the Philippines. Photo: Biel Calderón/

But these systems are often expensive, and are beyond the reach of fishermen like Harry Bibat, who has only been able to get one thanks to a program of the United States Agency for International Development. Many others have not been able to get on the transparency train. In the Bula district, near where Bibat lives, an entire community had to leave the boats and start growing algae when the new government regulations made their boats illegal. “We had to adapt all the boats and it was very expensive,” says Leony Gempero, secretary of the Bula Algae Growers Association. “Times are changing,” says Raúl González, owner of several tuna fishing boats. “Small fishermen are often the most sustainable, but we are left out because we can not adapt to the new regulations,” says González.

For the lucky ones like Harry Bibat, the transponder he has just installed means much more than adapting to the demands of European and American consumers. “The transponder can warn you if there is bad weather and help us not to get lost,” says Bibat. “Besides, my wife is calmer because she can see where I am at every minute. Now I feel more secure when I go out to fish. ”