REACTION: Philippines’ Deadliest Catch | WWF
REACTION: Philippines’ Deadliest Catch

Posted on 08 February 2013

After typhoon BOPHA hit Mindanao last December, among the missing were 218 crewmembers of two fishing fleets, operating in circumstances beyond their ships' condition and crews' trainings. Dr Jose Ingles details the factors that lead to the tragedy, and what should be done about it.
by Dr Jose Ingles, WWF Coral Triangle Strategy Leader

Typhoon BOPHA hit Mindanao in the southern Philippines last December 4, leaving in its wake over 1,000 people dead and 800 others still missing (NDRRMC report, December 22). It is considered the second deadliest typhoon on record since 1947. Of the missing, about 218 were crewmembers of two group seining fleets catching tuna. These consisted of two catcher boats and about 18 support vessels such as carriers, scout boats, and light boats. The vessels were operating east of the country’s EEZ, some 200 km offshore.

Why were these vessels on the path of a Category 5 super typhoon? Most, if not all of the country’s domestic purse seine fishing fleet are very old and decrepit and will not pass the international maritime safety standard set by International Maritime Organization (IMO). Outdated policies from the 1960s and 70s are mainly to blame—one that incentivizes importation and use of ships for fishing that should have otherwise been destined for recycling. There is also a law that provides a waiver for use of these decrepit vessels to operate as long as it is used in fishing and within Philippine waters.

Another policy provides exemption of the fishing crew members from the requirements of the maritime agency to have a certificate of formal training on navigation and seamanship. These are gross violations of the IMO rules of which the Philippines is a signatory. These twin policies creates a fishing flotilla of floating coffins where vessels are manned by untrained crew members that in case of accident, both the vessels and its crew members cannot claim any insurance or damages. The bureaucratic hurdles in the processing and the horrendous cost of the registration of new vessels by the maritime agency are also to blame—another disincentive to modernize the country’s fishing fleets.

The size and condition of these fishing vessels were not equipped to operate in the EEZ. The unproductive near-shore fishing grounds have pushed them to fish outside the limits of their safety operations. Early warning systems for storms are announced with the formation of an active low-pressure area (LPA). These are precursors of storms. But since these vessels have been out for weeks with only a radio link as their form of communication, there was no way for them to determine the exact location, direction, and speed of the oncoming weather disturbance.

Packing sustained winds of 140 knots (259 km/hr) and traveling at a speed 27 km per hour, typhoon Bopha’s speed was probably more than twice the cruising speed of the fishing vessels. The vessels couldn’t have outran the storm, and its decrepit condition couldn’t have withstood the gale force winds and waves.

It’s about time that two agencies, the Maritime Agency (MARINA) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) pull their acts together: review and repeal policies and to replace it with those that modernize fishing fleets. These two agencies that are concerned with the fate of fishers need to agree to a common set of rules that ensure the safety of lives and property.

It’s the only way we can eliminate most fishing vessels’ moniker: widow makers.
Jose Ingles
© Jose Ingles