The seafood future of Chonalyn, the Philippines’ 100 millionth baby
On 27 July 2014, the Philippine government hit a symbolic population mark as it welcomed its 100 millionth Filipino—a baby girl named Chonalyn, whose arrival was celebrated with much fanfare. The government and the church regard a high population of young people an asset, contributing to the labour force.
But I see it differently.
The country may have enough manpower resources but it is not food secure—specifically, seafood secure.
At present, the country produces 2.4 million tonnes of wild caught seafood. Its annual seafood production growth rate decelerated to just 0.5% in 2010 from a high of 7.5% in early 2000. It was the lowest growth rate in history since production for wild capture fisheries started. Similarly, farmed fisheries have grown slowly and started to plateau in 2006. Despite this, the country’s high production could still maintain a per capita seafood consumption of around 36 kg annually—one of the highest in the world.
Given the way our country’s fisheries resources are currently managed, Chonalyn will see many changes in seafood throughout her lifetime. If our fisheries resources are managed the same way we have in the past 40 years, here is what she will experience.
Chonalyn will probably be introduced to eating seafood at 5 years old. She will be munching bits and pieces of shrimp crackers or dried fish tidbits, unmindful of the fact that seafood production (and availability) for each Filipino has declined during her existence so far. Seafood prices will have risen in double figures, making seafood access harder for low-income groups. Her parents will be feeling the pinch of both seafood availability and access.
In 2027, when Chonalyn is a teenager going around with her peers, she will be frequenting fast-food joints and entertainment centres, munching a combination of shrimp sushi, fish chips, and some crab sticks with fries. Half of the seafood she consumes will be imported. The population of the country will have reached 120 million. The productivity of the seas will continue its downward spiral, making local supply very acutely scarce.
The government, in response to low seafood supply and in order to maintain seafood supply of 25 kg per capita per year, will have changed the policy to allow imports to supply the wet market. This will be coupled with an aggressive search for more fishing access rights in other countries. Imported seafood products, which are generally cheaper, will overwhelm local supply, driving small-scale fishing to extinction. Fishing business ventures will shift to the more profitable business of aquaculture, getting more subsidies from the government.
Most fish available in the market will be cultured ones. Scarcity will drive prices even higher, making seafood accessible only to those in the middle and higher-income groups. The government will put a ceiling price for dried fish and canned sardines to ensure that poor people still have seafood. By this time, Chonalyn will start to notice that slowly, starting with the low-income groups, the rice and fish diet of Filipinos for centuries will be replaced by rice and chicken.
As Chonalyn grows older, seafood will be a treat: only served during special occasions like her debut in 2032, or when she gets married a few years later, where the wedding ceremony menu will include fish sticks, crab sticks, and shrimp sticks (all from surimi). Only on the VIP table will fresh fish be served to special guests.
This scenario will be happening globally, in many developing countries. By then, the productivity of our seas will have reached its limit and many countries will disallow exports as a way to ensure national seafood security. It is likely that ‘fish wars’ could become a global problem.
By 2040, Chonalyn would have entered the labour force. Her knowledge of seafood will probably be limited to what is drawn on the containers of the food she eats. The number of fish species that she will probably recognize is no more than 20 species, all of which will come in the form of surimi sticks or crab omelette served in crab-shaped shells. She will barely know what actual shrimps or crabs look like or that the fish fillet she knows so well is quite different from the one that has bones, scales, and fins.
It is sad to know that this future scenario has a high likelihood of happening, given the way we are currently managing our fisheries resources.
The estimated seafood gap by 2040 when there will be 150 million people is about 2.9 million tonnes, assuming the current fish consumption of 36 kg per capita. This means we need to grow by around 70,000 tonnes annually, or 2 percent of our current production, if we are to become seafood secure. This could be done only if our fisheries agencies act urgently to develop strategic action plans designed to bring back the productivity of our seas. This will include policy reforms to improve governance, build capacity for fisheries, reduce waste, improve culture efficiency and innovate and develop new and better seafood products.
By 2050, Chonalyn may have children of her own. It is incumbent upon us to make sure that her children’s generation will enjoy the same seafood we know today.