Last December, Francisco Buencamino, executive director of the Canned Sardine Association of the Philippines (CSAP) warned of a “looming shortage” of sardines during the close of the fishing season in the Zamboanga Peninsula, which happens annually from December 1 to February 28 to enable the sardines to reproduce.
The predicted sardine shortage during the closed fishing season is a recent phenomenon brought about by many factors including changing migration patterns possibly due to climate change, as well as schools swimming closer to shore where commercial fishing vessels aren’t allowed.
Canned sardines are an important part of the Filipino diet. It’s a cheap source of protein and can be stored for long periods of time. It’s also a staple during times of disaster, usually as part of relief goods distributed by government and nongovernment organizations. CSAP, which is composed of about 14 companies that distribute 32 brands, produces an estimated two billion cans of sardines a year.
Now that fishing season is about to begin, Buencamino says that while the shortage thankfully didn’t materialize, it continues to be a threat to the industry. Fishing season runs from March 1 to November 31 every year, with the industry required to stock at least 75,000 metric tons to be able to supply the three months of the closed season, “especially in the Christmas and especially during calamities, when you have panic buying and the LGUs buy up the canned sardines for distribution for food aid for those affected by calamities,” Buencamino said.
At first, Buencamino’s recommendation was for the canneries to try buying sardines, locally known as tamban, from municipal fishermen (who are exempt from the fishing ban) to make up for the predicted deficit. CSAP reached out to the Bureau of Fisheries, who were swift to act to help prevent a potential shortage while offering local fishermen the chance to earn extra income. “We eventually landed with a memorandum of agreement with the Bureau of Fisheries… that they would arrange for the municipal fishmen to sell the tamban to the canneries because we buy the equivalent of 500 tubs (about 50 kilos)… a day for one cannery.”
Unfortunately, despite everyone’s best efforts, the endeavor was not a success. “How much fish did we catch from the municipal fishermen…? Zero,” Buencamino said. “They could not meet the restrictions. They could not meet the specs.”
This is why Buencamino has once again brought up the idea of reconfiguring the country’s deep water delineation, or the line that dictates where commercial boats can fish. The current delineation under law is 15 km from shore, which CSAP maintains is a political delineation versus their proposed seven fathoms (0.0128016 km), which they say is more scientific. “Under the law, there is an adjustment to 10.1 km. This 10.1 is within the law, but there is a provision: provided the local mayor allows it…,” Buencamino said.
They likewise maintain that this will help the fishing industry, whose earnings shrunk by -5% last year due to factors that include the fluctuating costs of fuel. “My campaign is now shifting to focus on getting [to] the delineating issue,” Bunecamino said. “…we are firming our stand on a science-based fathom of depth because that will measure the kind of vessel that can go.”
Buencamino mentioned another industry challenge: the rising price of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)-mandated Standard Retail Price (SRP) for sardines, which he claims have been rolled back to a point that, given the aforementioned rise in fishing costs, meant that canneries may be operating at a loss. “During the last typhoon, the government declared a calamity. But when you have a calamity, the fisheries law allows the government to freeze prices,” he said in Taglish. “But what did the DTI do? They came up with the — SRP for the frozen price at rollback prices.” What was frozen at 21 pesos now had to be sold at 18 pesos. “18 pesos is below production cost of sardines,” he claimed. “[21 pesos] will probably just pay for the increasing cost since 2020, the pandemic, gasoline prices have been increasing.”
He added that there have been reports of CSAP members pulling out stocks from supermarkets, opting to sell “through wet markets, sari-sari stores because there’s no listing fee, no shelf space rental, no added costs [that] the supermarkets… ask us to pay.” If this trend continues, this might mean consumers not being able to purchase certain brands in supermarkets.
Buencamino said that he has been trying to set a meeting with Secretary Alfredo Pascual of the DTI but this has so far not yet happened. He said that his next step would be to, “…likely submit a motion for reconsideration on this.”
When asked what he thinks the most probable result of all this might be if things continue to go unchecked, Buencamino said, “I think what is unavoidable is that the looming shortage will become reality.”