Smaller tuna catches worry traders

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/24 January)—High-quality large tuna stocks caught and unloaded daily in this port city, the “Tuna Capital of the Philippines,” are getting smaller apparently due to overfishing, a disturbing trend exporters and small fisher folk have observed since last year.

Fresh from a fishing expedition, Severino Opsar and his two crewmen had just unloaded their lone 48-kilogram yellowfin tuna catch from a four-day stakeout in the seas within Philippine territory.

After traders haggled for his prized catch Saturday dawn at the Market 1 of the sprawling fish port complex, Opsar grossed nearly P14,000 as his single harvest fetched a high price tag of P280 per kilogram.

Bound home for Glan in Sarangani province three hours away, Opsar gamely granted an interview at the wharf, his small outrigger boat resting in a spitting distance, appearing dissatisfied with their haul.

“We’re able to catch only one tuna, from three or four pieces we normally caught in the last few years,” lamented the 42-year old father of four who has been catching tuna using the handline method in the last 15 years.

“Moreover, the sizes of the tuna have noticeably shrunk now than before,” he added, speaking in Cebuano.

He seemed at a loss as to why the fishes have become smaller, but noted the stiff competition that abound in the sentro, the expanse of the sea near Balut Island rich in tuna stocks, with so many fishing boats staking out there.

Tuna stocks caught in the sentro are often rated as first class, thus the ones often sent in various parts of the globe where they are served as sashimi, a popular Japanese cuisine eaten raw after dipping in a spicy hot sauce.

They command better prices as they have the best traces of freshness owing to the short distance the local fishermen from this city, Kiamba, Maasim and Maitum–all in Sarangani province— have to travel to the sentro.

If lucky, some of the small fishermen could be back to unload their catches of up to four pieces at the fish port complex here after just two or three days at sea.

Tata Vicente, who works as a tuna scaler in the past four years, also noted that giant-sized tunas weighing 80 to 90 kilograms bound for the export markets have become rare these days.

“The average sizes of the tuna have been down to 60, 50 kg and down,” said Vicente in a separate interview, a few meters away from from traders or their subordinates counting wads of money in various denominations.

The rule of the game between the fishermen and the traders is instant cash payment.

By the next morning or even sooner, the high-grade tuna will be in the United States, Japan or to any other part of the world.

About a third of the daily harvest of large tuna goes to the foreign market, another third to the local processing companies, and the rest—often the lowest class–to the domestic wet markets.

Data from the Philippine Fisheries Development Authority, which supervises the fish port’s operations, showed there’s an insignificant increase in the volume of unloading at Market 1, the trading place for large tuna at the fish port complex.

In 2010, the quantity of fresh/chilled large tuna, more popularly known as the hand line sector, as they catch the stocks using the traditional hook and line fishing, rose only by 0.6% to 7,040,991 kg from 6,998,437 kg, the PFDA report said.

On that Saturday morning, American John Heitz, export manager of Gensan Aqua Traders, was to send via plane 22 pieces of tuna, also called the “Chicken of the Sea,” to the United States.

They weighed a total of 734 kg, but the same quantity before would have reached 1,000 kg or a ton, said Mr. Heitz, who is working in the handline tuna sector in the past 25 years.

He estimated the shrink in the size of tuna from 15 to 20%, blaming overfishing to the reduction in size.

Heitz, who observed the phenomenon “starting last year but worsening in the last six month,” suspected that because of overfishing, fishermen caught younger tuna maybe two to three years old, thus they are smaller.

“Compared to a fruit, they are picked but not yet ripe,” he said.

Pointing to neatly packed boxes containing export-grade tuna, Heitz said they could fit two tunas before but now they could squeeze even three pieces, entrails and heads removed.

Before they were like 50 to 60 kg apiece, but now they’re down to 30 to 40 kg each on the average, he stressed.

That particular Saturday, they’re even shipping out a 25.5-kg tuna for the smallest and 48.5 kg for the biggest, which Heitz noted has become the “trend the past six months.”

Severino Laruya, a classifier of Canada-based Territory Seafood Enterprises, echoed the same observation, although aside from overfishing, he suspected that the weather may also have something to do with the shrinking sizes of tuna.

“There are just too many fishermen nowadays hunting tuna and what they’re catching are the young ones,” Laruya said.

‘With more than two decades of experience in the trading of fresh tuna, he noted that a mature tuna normally weighs 80 to 90 kg.

According to a 2009 listing at www.atuna.com, a global tuna industry resource, tuna that heavy would have been four to five years old.

Laruya said the effect of the shrinkage is that they could not regularly reach 1,000 kg for their shipment, and thus pay higher freight fees.

He explained that the more heavy the shipment, the lesser would be the fees charged. (Bong Sarmiento/MindaNews)

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