Dispatch from the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission Meeting

Dispatches from the Philippines

Staff of the Pew Environment Group are currently in the Philippines for this year's meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the regional fisheries management organization responsible for the governance of the world's largest tuna fishery.

In this dispatch, Joanna Benn, a senior officer at Pew, writes about a trip to a fish market in Navotas, the fishing capital of the Philippines.

MANILA, the Philippines—Night falls. We leave the airless meeting room and the throng of government delegates from 25 countries gathered here to negotiate fishing quotas and shark protections. We travel north to Navotas, a Manila suburb and the fishing capital of the Philippines.

The air is damp and dank, and we passed line after line of ramshackle homes and dwellings along the road, many stacked one on top of the other. The life- filled streets swarmed with people washing and cooking, lights flickered and a sudden glow of seasonal Christmas lights and decorations illuminated otherwise dark corners. Small shops and stores bustled with customers, and as we rattled along the busy roads, more and more trucks and cargo vehicles filled the route. We are heading to port.

Landings of fish begin between 9 and 10 p.m., and people shuttled busily between stagnant waterways on foot or bike, moving baskets, throwing ice over fresh catch and organizing fish into piles.

Navotas market

The smell is cloying and strong. Moving into the market area, we find a world wholly based on the sea. According to government statistics, about half of Navotas' inhabitants depend on fishing and related industries.

Tuna for sale

We look for tuna and find baskets of big and small skipjack, the most common kind for canning. As we move farther into the market, the atmosphere thickens slightly.

Other fish for sale

Pew's marine experts see a basket full of small fish. Yet these fish are not meant to be taken so small. These are skipjack, bigeye, and yellowfin tuna juveniles, some perhaps just a few weeks old. These commercially valuable fish are being caught almost to the limits of sustainability (skipjack) or, in the case of bigeye, are already being seriously overfished. We know they must have been caught with indiscriminate fishing gear, probably large nets from purse-seine boats and probably using FADs (Fish Aggregating Devices) which are currently not regulated or managed; one of the topics for this week's meeting.

Adam Baske at market

Diplomatic standoffs between countries can arise over how many fish are too many to take from the sea and the long-term effects of this. The western and central Pacific Ocean is a huge area of open water, stretching across 20 percent of the world's surface. It's also where commercially valuable fish such as tuna are worth their weight in gold, providing more than half of the world's tuna and valued at more than US$5.5 billion annually.

Fish in this part of the world are critical for food security and driving development, livelihoods and economic activity. With so much at stake, the question is how to balance opportunities and investment with sustainability and a healthy ocean.

The challenge is to ensure that markets such as Navotas', and the people who depend on them, continue to thrive. In the morning we will return to the meeting room and governments will continue to negotiate the line between meeting today's needs with conservation and the future of the ocean.