Dar signs last-minute fish imports from China

For the third quarter in a row, Agriculture Secretary William Dar is importing fish from China. He invokes low national catches. Filipino fishermen deny it.

The “midnight madness” continues, deplores Senator Imee Marcos, head of the Economic Affairs Committee. Co-terminus June 30 with President Rodrigo Duterte, Dar would seek reappointment under President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Dar on Monday authorized the import of 38,695 tonnes of galunggong (round scad), sardines and mackerel. These 38,695,000 kilos will be sold at retail on public markets, to the detriment of local fishermen and breeders. A banyera (pot) of fish is 30 kilos.

Dar bypassed the National Multisectoral Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council. The Fisheries Code requires the Ministry of Agriculture to consult this highest policy recommending body on matters affecting stakeholders. Dar’s import order was not tabled at the last NFARMC meeting on April 29, NGO representative Dennis Calvan and Commercial Fleet representative Jaydrick Yap said.

The 38,695 tonnes is the balance of the 60,000 tonnes that Dar authorized for import in Q1 2022. Commercial fleet owners, artisanal fishers, tilapia and bangus producers, academics and NGO leaders NFARMC had objected to that 60,000 tonnes to begin with. There was no shortage of fish then, as there is now. But Dar invoked the damage from Typhoon Odette in the Visayas and Mindanao to bring in fish from China. “Fish are still in our seas,” said Senator Cynthia Villar, then head of the agriculture committee. “Just help the fishermen to repair the destroyed bancas.

Dar also ordered the import of 62,000 tonnes in the 4th quarter of 2021, citing the ban on commercial fishing at the end of the year. Fleet owners, small-scale fishers and producers recommended only 30,000 tonnes as a maximum, but were ignored. The pens and ponds were teeming with tilapia and bangus for the Christmas season; the rotation crops were good for seven months, recalls aquaculturist Norbert Chingcuanco.

It is true that importers were only able to fill half of the 62,000 tons. Yet Dar ordered another 60,000. Importers only brought in 21,305. Now he wants 38,695 tons more, supposedly because of the June-July fishing ban in the Davao seas. Two-month fishing bans have been in effect on a rotational basis for years in regional waters, with no need to import.

The South China Sea fishing season runs from December to June. Chinese poachers take advantage of this. In December 2020, thousands of Chinese maritime militia trawlers began entering the waters of Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. In March 2021, over 300 were spotted en masse at the Philippines’ Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef at Pagkakaisa (Union) Bank. Reinforced by dozens more, they later expanded to the Pagasa Islands and Recto (Reed) Bank, all located within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone. Without protection from Chinese gunboats, Philippine catches in the Western Philippine Sea dwindled.

Dar is claiming slight increases in retail tariffs for his latest imports: bangus at P180 from P160 and Indian mackerel at P300 from P260 per kilo. But the prices of tilapia, galunggong, sardines, bonito, tanigue and other varieties of tuna and mackerel remain stable.

Citing fisheries sources, Senator Marcos says soaring fuel prices are to blame for the spikes in fish prices, not scarcity.

Seafood is imported without duties or taxes, explains Paul Santos, fleet operator and wholesaler. Only Pula 500 per ton is levied as an administrative fee.

Smugglers use fish as a front in cargo containers for high-yield poultry, pork, and beef. “The entry of chicken and meat to the docks is uninterrupted,” says Rosendo So, president of Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura.

Sugarcane planters are also grumbling. The DA is said to have rented 200 containers of sugar for a single beverage company, in the middle of the milling season. The DA also allows imports of vegetables and fruits. This spawns large-scale smuggling, hurting producers in Benguet, Central Luzon, Mindoro and Mindanao. Dar snubbed all three investigative hearings of the Senate Committee of the Whole into contraband agriculture last March-April.

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