The Philippine tuna industry crisis: Another look (3)

Last of three parts

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/06 Feb) — With the Philippine seas south of Mindanao already over fished, local tuna producers have looked beyond the country’s fishing grounds for their operations.

In the 1990s, local tuna producers began opening up fishing operations in Indonesia and in Papua New Guinea.  By the turn of the millennium, several Filipino companies had already put up canning plants in these countries known for their rich tuna fishing grounds.

As local tuna production began to decline, pressures from Filipino companies operating fishing grounds in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea for raw materials increased.  For a while, it sustained the six canning plants in the city which still operated 24/7.  But since 2008, canning plants had been cutting production hours by a third, from three production shifts to just two and sometimes just once a day.

The decline in Philippine tuna catch had little impact on Filipino exporters of canned tuna who were able to set up plants in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.  As early as two decades ago, industry players had seen a steady decline of domestic catch due to over fishing and over saturation of commercial fishing operations in Philippine seas.

At least four Filipino-owned corporations now have tuna canning plants in these two countries.

But while production declined, increased international prices of canned and processed tuna as well as fresh chilled yellowfin tuna exports are keeping the Philippine tuna industry afloat.

Over the last five years, the annual export earnings of Philippine tuna are still within the range of US$280 million despite reduced production.

Days of aplenty

Marfenio Tan, former president of the Socsksargen Federation of Fishing and Allied Industry (SFFAI),   continues to reminisce the days when they had to bury tons of tuna catches on the beaches because there were simply abundant supplies and demand could not cope, if not non-existent.

Landings of mature yellowfin tuna have steadily been declining over the last five years.

Six years ago, before fuel costs skyrocketed worldwide, the average price of a box of skipjack was P600 (US$14 per 33-kilo box).  On Thursday, it was US$48.

“Way back in the late 1960s, bariles (yellowfin tuna) was sold at fifteen centavos (Php) and still there were no takers.  Skipjacks were sold at five centavos a bundle,” Tan said.

On Thursday, the sashimi grade yellowfin tuna fetched P290 a kilo (US$6.70).

Back then these tunas were caught just a little over one hundred meters away from the shore.  Today, the closest you can have them in volume is a good six hours from the coastal towns of Kiamba and Maasim in Sarangani.

On a bad day, three weeks in the open seas off Sarangani Bay will net a zero catch.

Today, the average vessel days of handline tuna fishermen is ten days.  The aggregate medium sized purse seine fishing operations take about 30 fishing days.

Glory days over

Despite the pall of gloom in the horizon, producers and fishermen are not counting out the Philippine tuna industry although Tan says it definitely had already seen its better days. Many who relied solely on tuna fishing went bankrupt when the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit the region, mostly fishing companies who obtained loans, some of them in dollar denomination, to expand or to invest first time in the industry.

But for some, the 1997 financial crisis was also time for windfall profits as exporters enjoyed the bonanza of the decline in the Philippine peso foreign exchange market. Tan said of the 10 or so families who pioneered the industry in the late 1960s and early 1970s, only three are left.

During the stretch when the industry became the single top dollar earner commodity for Mindanao, several companies had also emerged, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the industry is going full circle again following the 2008 global collapse of several financial institutions and renewed oil price crisis.

Five years ago, former General Santos City Mayor Pedro Acharon Jr urged key players to look beyond the tuna industry and invest in other businesses. He proved prophetic as the two-year Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission ban on tuna fishing gave them a rude wake-up call.
Tan, now retired president of San Andres Fishing Industries, became big enough which allowed him to diversify his business interests long before the double whammy of crises hit the industry in the last two decades.  He said the crisis has affected his production but his other business interests outside the fishing industry insulated and prevented him from going the way of his other contemporaries.

He, along with the Riveras of the RD Fishing Group, is still one of the city’s biggest tuna producers as well as among the biggest businessmen in town. But he still yearns for what once were the glory days of the tuna industry. (Edwin Espejo writes for the