Posted on 10 May 2013
Tuna fishing boats may look simple, but their operations are governed by clear rules about how fishing benefits get shared between the crew and captain. Over breakfast at sea, Jingles gets the full story from a senior fisher and ponders how a reduction in catches is changing the economics of the business.
Over breakfast, on our way back from our tagging trip, I inquired about the “sharing system” being practiced on the boat. It was the oldest fisher who volunteered to explain.
He said that fishers manning the boats are classified as either pasahero (passenger) or kumon (common); this is determined by the owner of the fishing vessel. What distinguishes these two classifications is how each are paid for the tuna caught. The pasahero gets 40% of the earnings, while 60% goes to cover the operating expenses of that particular trip. The net income (gross minus expenses) will then become the share of the kumon.
In Mamburao, the boat captain (and at times, the mechanic) belongs to the kumon while the rest of the fishing crew is classified as pasahero.
On the boat I joined, only the captain was under the kumon system. This means that for him to earn income, the total earnings from this trip should exceed the operating cost. So it seems that the way the current sharing system works favors the pasahero, getting 40% of the tuna value.
If the boat captain hooks a tuna, the earnings will go directly to cover the expenses. The captain in this case, basically shoulders the cost of the trip. For him to earn from this trip, his crew will need to catch more than 200 kg (>4-5 tuna), to cover operating costs and have some extra to take home.
This type of sharing system was developed at the onset of the tuna boom in the country, to ensure that boat captains get paid handsomely for bringing the boat to fertile waters and ensuring boat safety, without having to concern themselves with catching tuna.
But today, low catch rates, coupled with uncooperative weather during the catching season, have put many captains and boat owners in huge debt. Captains are now forced to fish as hard as the rest.
As explained to me, many captains have lost their boats as payment for debts. In fact, one of the fishers in a previous tagging trip used to work as a boat captain. Like him, many others have simply given up their boats to pay their debts.
This is why we now see changes in the sharing system happening. Many boat owners have eliminated the pasahero classification and have compelled all crew members to be part of kumon, so that everyone can share operating the costs. However, many fishers are wary of joining boats as part of kumon, and with good reason: being a pasahero will never put them in big debt and by fishing harder, they can earn outright for each tuna they haul onboard. As pasahero, food, water, and other fishing supplies (including hooks) are covered by the operating cost.
Under the kumon system, everybody partakes on both the net earnings and the losses that each trip makes. What this means is that if catch rates don’t improve, the debts will be spread out to include all the crew members, putting more people in debt. Changing the sharing system will not improve the plight of fishers for as long as the fishery is not managed and maintained at a sustainable level. This is where the need for sustainably-managed tuna fisheries comes in.
As I sip the last drop of my overly-sweet instant coffee, I again harped on the idea of catching squids instead. Tuna have become scarce and due to this, squids are likely to become more abundant.
Posted by Jose Ingles