In Philippines’ tuna capital, fishermen are reeling from high fuel prices

Camille Elemia and Jeoffrey Maitem
General Santos City, Philippines
In Philippines’ tuna capital, fishermen are reeling from high fuel prices A catch of tuna is seen at General Santos City Fish Port in the southern Philippines, Aug. 9, 2022. High fuel prices, spurred by the war in Ukraine, are adversely affecting fishermen and seafood business operators in the “tuna capital” of the Philippines.
Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews

Updated at 8:15 a.m. ET on 2022-08-13

Veteran longline fisherman Miguel Mayola eased his boat gingerly into the port of General Santos City after a month at sea with his crew in deep waters off Bongao, a finger-shaped island at the southwestern tip of the Philippines.

The 39-year-old captain, his leathery face weather-beaten by years of toiling in an industry that has made many buyers rich from the tuna he fishes, was now waiting to see whether his prized catch could net him enough money. He needed the cash for his family and 13-man crew, and to fund another fishing expedition.

“We have to endure rough seas in the southern waters. Sometimes we have a good catch, but other times we are unlucky,” he told BenarNews in the local Visayan dialect.

“When we dock here, that’s when they’ll judge our catch. We work so hard but when we arrive here, we sometimes find out that we don’t have enough money for our family’s needs.”

He and other fishermen in General Santos City – the capital of the Philippine tuna industry and one of Southeast Asia’s leading producers of premium yellowfin tuna – say they’re struggling to make ends meet as they contend with a spike in prices for crude oil and inflation, while being burdened by an ongoing global pandemic.  

“It’s hard work but we can’t do anything. It’s really hard with prices of crude and gasoline rising, and our families have nobody to rely on but us fishermen,” Mayola said.

Diesel prices are now at 75 pesos, or U.S. $1.50 a liter, in General Santos, which produces 75 percent of the nation’s tuna supply. This eats up a huge chunk of fishing operators’ expenses in a normal fishing cycle, which can last about a month.

“The high fuel costs have a huge impact on the industry. Their expenditures for their regular fishing run have now tremendously increased,” Jun Superticioso, officer-in-charge of the General Santos City Fish Port Complex, told BenarNews earlier this week.

Depending on a fishing vessel’s capacity, Superticioso said operators shell out nearly $5,000 to $7,200 for a 30-day fishing expedition. 

“It would have been okay if there was an assurance of a catch. But there are days when there are none,” he said.

General Santos, in the main southern island of Mindanao, hosts the country’s tuna canneries and allied industries that employ around 120,000 people.

The industry is worth an estimated $58 million. Apart from the canneries, the fishermen here also export fresh and frozen tuna to markets overseas.

But the wealth that the tuna industry generates has not lifted many of the local fishermen, like Mayola, out of poverty. They sell their catch to big brokers, who then sell the tuna at a higher premium in markets such as Japan.

The irony, Mayola said, is that fishermen like him sometimes can’t even afford to buy fish at the local market.

When the coronavirus outbreak first hit the Philippines in 2020, it forced smaller operators to ground their boats amid a sudden drop in global demand, according to local industry leaders here. And now, despite borders having begun to reopen, Russia’s invasion and war in Ukraine have caused prices of petrol to soar, hitting fishermen’s operations hard, they say.

‘The profit is very small’

John Heitz, a 68-year-old American expatriate who co-owns Kahuna Tuna Trading here, exports premium fresh tuna to the United States. On Aug. 9, BenarNews saw him conducting a quality check of prospective tuna purchases.

Porters were carrying huge bigeye and yellowfin tuna on their shoulders, weighing them and separating them by size and the quality of meat. 

Some of the fish were half a man’s size. Porters had to hoist them by hand to their buyers before the tuna was frozen, bagged and placed in cartons bound for buyers abroad.

“Everything is more expensive here, because the fuel, the freight is more expensive. The selling price is more expensive, too. But the profit is very small,” said Heitz, who has been living in the city for over 30 years.

“If the tuna is too expensive and no one is willing to take it, then we do not send it,” he told BenarNews.

In June, local industry leaders, including the Minanga Buayan Fishermen Association and the Socsksargen Federation of Fishing and Allied Industries Inc., appealed for a government subsidy but have yet to receive any feedback.

Workers handle a catch of yellowfin tuna at the General Santos City Fish Port in the southern Philippines, Aug. 9, 2022. [Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews]

Fisherfolk, who are among the country’s poorest people, meanwhile have to bear the brunt of inflation. They toil for days out in the open sea and under the tropical sun, only to return to shore with little income for them and their families.

“The earnings from our catch is only enough to pay for the company. We can’t do anything about it because we don’t have extra cash, it’s just enough for fuel,” said Mayola, the fishing boat skipper.

“We will just have to tighten our belts and endure this. It would be better if we have some aid for crude oil so that we can continue our work,” Mayola said.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the newly elected president of the Philippines, took it upon himself to address the country’s agriculture woes, appointing himself as the agricultural chief. The country’s fishing industry comes under that portfolio. 

“That is why I made agriculture the single highest priority of everything that we are doing,” Marcos told a press briefing on July 5, less than a week after he took office. “Because you cannot build a strong economy unless you have a foundation of a robust agricultural sector, which assures food supply even in emergencies. And that’s what we’re working towards. That’s the long-term plan,” he said.

However, progressive groups are not convinced, particularly of the new administration’s plan to build farm-to-market roads in a bid to reduce production costs.

“What is the use of farm-to-market roads if there are no products to transport because the production of fisherfolk and farmers is depleted due to high costs?” Pamalakaya, a federation of small fisherfolk organizations, said in a media statement.

“Roads and infrastructure are not the solution to achieve food security if the producers of food are not supported.”

This article has been updated to amend the headline. 


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