Billions for commercial tuna industry, crumbs for fisherfolk
March 25, 2024

General Santos Fish Port Complex. (Photo by Mavic Conde/Bulatlat)

Months of investigation by Bulatlat revealed that the booming commercial tuna industry in General Santos City, dubbed the Philippines’ “tuna capital,” favors industrial scale commercial fishing fleets at the expense of the livelihood of thousands of ordinary fisherfolk.


GENERAL SANTOS CITY — Apolinaria Lausa moved to General Santos City as a teenager in the early 1980s after her father and brothers heard that fishing is profitable here. Now 58 years old and married to a fisher, Lausa and her family have yet to reap any financial reward.

“It’s difficult to rely solely on fishing. They come home empty-handed because there isn’t always a huge catch,” Lausa told Bulatlat in an interview. And when they do bring home some, the income is almost always never enough.

Months of investigation by Bulatlat revealed that Lausa’s experience is not unique as the booming commercial tuna industry in General Santos City, dubbed the Philippines’ “tuna capital,” favors industrial scale commercial fishing fleets at the expense of the livelihood of thousands of ordinary fisherfolk.

Tuna is the driving force behind the growth of commercial fisheries’ fortunes. However, most profit-sharing schemes for each tuna leaves ordinary fishers with barely enough money. Most of the profits go to boat owners and operators. Expensive fish aggregating devices called payaos to locate tuna also squeeze out smaller fishers and companies.

Since 2018, this region has one of the highest poverty incidence among fisherfolks. From 25 percent of poor fishers in 2018, it increased to 40 percent three years after in 2021.

The government, long aware of the unfair profit-sharing schemes, has failed to implement changes. Its own order which sought to improve working conditions of commercial fishers even created loopholes that may work against the poor fisherfolk.

Tuna as driving force for commercial fishing growth

At the busy General Santos Fish Port Complex, fishers carry huge tunas on their backs, buyers negotiate prices; and workers stick rods inside fresh tuna to ensure its quality.

Around 200 metric tons of tuna land at the three different markets at the fish port every day, port planning officer Fritzie Leviste said.

Fishers like Roque, Lausa’s husband, need to spend two to four weeks at sea to catch these high-value fish. They often use line-and-hook gear to individually catch adult tuna.

However, he and his family are unable to eat these most-prized fish. Even if they wanted to eat tuna, Lausa said, they cannot afford it.

From 2013 to 2022, tuna remained to be the Philippines’ most valuable commercial fish for export, worth over $1.2 billion, securing the country’s position as one of the world’s leading tuna producers.

During the same period, Japan was the top export market for tuna, with around $400 million in value. This is followed by the United States ($226 million), Spain ($204 million), and Italy ($160 million).

Out of all the tuna species, Skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis), also known as pirit to locals, is the most abundant and valuable commercial fish caught in South Cotabato and the Philippines over the last decade. This is due to high demand from canneries as General Santos City is home to six of the eight tuna canneries in the country.

Skipjack is usually caught using large-scale purse seine and ring net operations which, unlike manual handline fishing, use huge nets to catch tons of fish, including small juvenile ones.

The province produced 1.83 million metric tons of skipjack, generating nearly P130 billion ($2.3 billion) from 2013 to 2022. It’s a very profitable species as over 60 percent of South Cotabato’s production value for the same period came from this species alone.

Skipjack tuna was both the most produced and most valuable commercial fish over the last ten years. From 2013 to 2022, more and more were caught, registering a 30 percent increase in production.

Demand for skipjack tuna grew even more during the pandemic as many people relied on instant and canned food at the peak of travel restrictions.

“In 2020, there was really a huge production. I think people got scared that they won’t have anything to eat during the COVID-19 pandemic so they relied on canned goods. Canneries received a huge amount of orders. At the time, we had foreign vessels here producing Skipjack 24/7,” Leviste said.

Fortune elusive for poor fishers

Despite billions generated by the booming industry year after year, Filipino fishers get poorer and poorer because profit-sharing schemes put the burden of risk on the fisher while the rewards go to operators.

Region 12 had the most commercial fishing vessels of more than 1,000 in 2023.

Despite the fishing fleet, the magnitude of poverty among fishers in the region more than doubled in 2021, from 13,500 fishers in 2018 to 28,100 three years later.

“General Santos is the tuna capital of the Philippines, but it’s a shame that the fishers are swimming in poverty. There is no transparent pay sharing method and no social benefits for them and their families,” said community organizer Sabrina Orozco of the Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa.

The most common sharing scheme is called lilima, wherein fishersget only one-fifth of the gross sale of their captured tuna. Under this scheme, the financier, who gives the start-up capital for each fishing trip, usually gets a 10-percent commission on top of the capital repayment. Some owners are also the financiers. Meanwhile, the broker gets a 5-percent commission. The net sale of the fishing trip will then be divided between the boat operator/captain, which usually gets 15 to 25 percent, and the boat owner who gets the rest of the income.

Roque was paid using this scheme for decades. His job was to catch one-by-one the larger species, such as sashimi-grade export yellowfin and bigeye tuna, using handline fishing, a method that uses a line with a hook attached to the end. This is more sustainable and difficult than purse seines and ringnets.

“I find it pitiful. Sometimes, it’s as if he only always received one-sixth because all trip expenses had to be deducted first,” Lausa said of her husband’s plight.

“The handline fishers give a lot of fish to the owners and operators. But when it comes to pay sharing, the fisher would only get a meager share, while the owner gets almost all,” she added.

Roque stopped working four years ago due to declining health. Their two younger children, who are now in college, were forced to work because no one would support them. Their elder daughter works as a domestic helper in Kuwait.

“No catch, no pay, there’s no certainty. They work so hard, rain or shine, yet when they return here, they have no money left because they had to pay for the fuel, ice, food and their cash advance. Oftentimes their balance is not enough to cover their advance,” Lausa said.

Other tuna workers and handline fishers, like the husband of Marcela Cabahit, shared the same experience.

“There were times my husband would get P15,000 ($270.99) after a two-week fishing trip. We will pay P10,000 ($180.66) to the owner because we asked for my husband’s pay in advance. We also borrowed money from other people. So the remaining P5,000 ($90.33) would not be enough for us,” Cabahit said.

Ana Beyking, whose husband works as a service crew carrying caught tuna from vessels in the open seas back to the port, said her husband earns only P6,000 ($108.40) a month, below the minimum wage of P390/day ($7.05) in the region.

“The operators and owners earn a lot. It feels like they are just asking fishers to work for free,” Beyking said. “I hope fishers will feel the price of their hard work.”

Many of these fishers also do not have safety nets. They don’t receive hazard and overtime pay, as well as social benefits such as SSS.

Another common sharing scheme is sukod, which means equal footing. The operator or captain is considered a partner of the boat owner in terms of benefits and costs. On good days, the operator or captain can get as high as 50 percent. But on bad days, he would have to bear the losses.

“If it’s a net loss, you have zero incentive,” according to purse seiner captain Dorie Boy Beyking. Captains like him usually rely on incentives because the salary is low. For him, it’s P3,000 ($54.20) monthly. On good days, he usually earns an annual average of P80,000 to P100,000 ($1445.27 – $1806.59) both from fishing expeditions and side jobs such as pagtutuyo or air/sun drying of fish.

But in December 2023, he had no fishing trip as the vessels needed to be repaired. With three grade school children, he could no longer rely on his monthly salary. He decided to apply for an alternative job as a security guard, which he said pays P420 ($7.59) per day.

“I don’t want to fish anymore. You’re lucky if your company is good to you. At least in this new job, there are benefits such as SSS and Pag-Ibig,” Beyking said.

Pumpboat captain Bernie Danao said that unless the boat owner can fund another trip, or a financier shoulders it in exchange for a share, captains or operators like him and Beyking are forced to wait.

Apolinaria Lausa said that her husband needs to spend two to four weeks at sea to catch these high-value fish. (Photo by Mavic Conde/Bulatlat)

As of August 2023, there were over 9,000 people employed in South Cotabato’s captured fisheries sector which include both municipal and commercial fisheries. It ranked 51st out of 82 provinces despite the region having the highest number of commercial vessels as of 2023 and despite the province generating the highest value and volume of commercial fish in the past decade.

But the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE ) Region 12, citing data from SOCCSKSARGEN Federation of Fishing and Allied Industries, Inc, told Bulatlat that the commercial fishing industry created an estimated 156,475 jobs in the region, supporting an estimated 688,490 household members.

SENTRO’s Orozco lamented that jobs alone are not enough, especially when ordinary fishermen lack protection and assurance. These add to their and their families’ vulnerability to malnutrition and possible eviction since many of them are informal settlers, Orozco said.

Big fishing companies squeeze out bargaining power of small fishers

Lausa repeatedly told her husband Roque that he and his co-workers should protest the unfair payment scheme.

“But my husband said they have no choice because it is very difficult to find a vessel to join. Some fishers also have mounting loans with the vessel owners, so they have no right to complain,” she said.

Ben Sumog-oy, volunteer head of SENTRO’s paralegal unit in the region, said that corporations use “blacklisting” to bar fishers who would assert their rights, air grievances, and organize a union from entering the company and other enterprises in the fishing industry in General Santos City and sometimes in the country.

This, he said, happened in 2013 when the Citra Mina Group of Companies allegedly “illegally dismissed employees” when they organized a union and petitioned management for recognition.

“The plight of ordinary workers is even more pitiful. They are forced to contend with hostile work conditions in the workplace for the sustenance of their respective families. They fully know that the moment they raise their voices against anything inside workplaces, their respective families can easily go hungry,” Sumog-oy said.

Bulatlat reached out to the company but it has yet to respond. DOLE Region 12 also declined to release information on the status of labor inspection cases, saying it “is confidential and is only made available to the parties involved.”

BFAR Region 12 data obtained by Bulatlat revealed that big corporations own the most number of catcher vessels. Corporations also own most fishing equipment used, be it handline, purse seine, or ringnet. There are three mother companies, with subsidiaries or sister companies, operating vessels in the region: Citra Mina Group of Companies, RD Corporation, and TSP Livestock & Development Corp.

Payao location (Photo by Mavic Conde/Bulatlat)

Citra Mina Group of Companies has the highest number of registered vessels and gear in the region. It owns a total of 42 ships, including 24 catcher vessels. Its primary method of catching fish is handline. Its sister company Tuna Explorers Inc. has a combined catching capacity of 823 gross tons across its 19 handlines – the biggest among all registered handline vessels.

According to its website, Citra Mina owns the largest motorized fleet in the Philippines – over 100 fishing vessels capable of catching up to 50 tons of tuna a day. BFAR data show it also owns two purse seines and two ringnets.

Meanwhile, five corporations own the most number of registered purse seines: Gladery Fishing Incorporated, Marchael Sea Ventures Corporation, Rugela Fishing Industries, Inc., San Andres Fishing Industry Inc., and San Lorenzo Ruiz Fishing Ind. Inc. each owning six purse seines.

However, Blue Catch Corporation has the largest combined capacity for tuna purse seiners, with 5,016 gross tons capacity. It accounts for 14 percent of the nearly 40,000 gross tonnage of all 129 registered purse seiners.

An individual named Leonora J. Macalipay owns the most number of ring nets, four out of the 261 registered. A fifth one, however, is registered under Macalipay Fishing, a company which Leonora also owns. These ships have a total catching capacity of 400 gross tons, the largest among registered ring nets.

Sumog-oy said rich owners use a “sophisticated” system “to organize a corporation in every strand of the chain of the entire fishing business operations” to deprive fishing workers of their share from production.

“Owners of capital amass profit through this sophisticated scheme, at the expense of fishing workers,” he said. “In every milestone in the life of a piece of tuna there is a corporation which is making profit from it. Since these sister corporations are owned and controlled by the same owners of capital, they can easily dictate the price of the tuna as it passes through these different corporations. In the end, what is left for the fishing workers is but a penny,” he said.

There is also the issue of transparency as fishing workers have no way of knowing whether the amount of gross sales declared by the company represents the actual and accurate amount because they have no access to the company’s records.

Bulatlat repeatedly reached out to the companies mentioned but they have yet to reply.

Payaos’ role in commercialization of tuna and dwindling supply

Aggregating devices called payaos which are extensively used to attract tunas prevent smaller fishers from competing with industrial scale fishing operations.

The use of payaos caused the phenomenal development of the tuna fishing industry, as it “greatly reduced time spent in searching and fishing for commercial volumes,” according to a 2012 joint report by BFAR and the inter-government organization, Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC).

These payaos cost a fortune, amounting to around P250,000 to P300,000 ($4514.31 – 5417.18) each, leaving Roque and other fishers all the more reliant on their owners or operators.

The payao, Sumog-oy said, is allocated one-fourth of the second initial balance of gross sales which he said is “too arbitrary and unjust.”

“This high allocation percentage is designed to enable the company to amass a huge amount of profit, while effectively reducing the share of toiling fishing workers,” he said. “The company appropriates for itself the 25 percent allocation for the payao, even if fish products are not from the payao.” Bulatlat asked some of the region’s top fishing companies about this but they have not responded.

Commercial fishing’s production volume has declined since 2013 but in terms of production value, it has contributed a 7-percent overall increase in the last decade. The sector’s 10-year production value, however, is still the lowest among all fisheries sectors, accounting for only one-fourth of the total. The trend is the same for tuna catches, which peaked in 2008 and have been declining ever since, according to OCEANA Philippines.

Lausa said many commercial handline fishermen like Roque would fish elsewhere due to dwindling tuna catches in nearby fishing grounds such as the Moro Gulf and Mindanao Sea, as well as the Davao and Tawi-Tawi seas. Roque was detained thrice in Indonesia for illegally fishing in the nation’s waters.

Danny Ocampo, head of OCEANA Philippines’ science strategy and fight against illegal fishing, said that there is a need to implement the Fisheries Management Area in the country, a recognized holistic and sustainable way to manage tuna fisheries.

The FMA system groups Philippine waters into 12 FMAs, with local governments and civic groups belonging to each FMA managing their own area, while being guided by a scientific advisory group. Through this system, Ocampo said segregated initiatives will be integrated via a science-based, bottom-up approach.

The FMA requires cross-sectoral participation, including from its management body, which will be in charge of developing its own governance structure. The fishermen’s voice is important if it wants to achieve a transparent decision-making process to address issues of illegal fishing, identify and provide opportunities for supplemental livelihoods, and implement harvest control rules based on set indicators, among others.

Government’s poor implementation of policies to help fishers

In 2016, DOLE issued Department Order 156-16 requiring commercial fishing owners to classify their vessel crews as regular employees and give them minimum wage and benefits. After seven years, however, there has been no significant change in the fisherfolk’s working conditions.

Under the order, owners and fishers must have an employment agreement detailing the scope of work, pay, and benefits. Fishers engaged in commercial operations are entitled to holiday pay, overtime pay, night shift differential, 13th month pay, paid maternity and paternity leave, rest days, and retirement pay. They also have the right to tenure and to form unions.

On top of providing minimum wage to fishers, owners must also give them productivity or performance-based pay. These must be done in a transparent manner, with payslips and payrolls.

The order also requires owners to follow occupational safety standards and living conditions aboard the commercial vessels, including accommodation, food, and medical care.

However, the directive only covers Philippine-flagged vessels. The order also contains a loophole that may hurt fishers’ classification as employees. Updated in 2018, it states that some fishers may be classified as “field personnel” and excluded from receiving wage-related benefits like regular holiday pay, premium pay, night shift differential, and service incentive leave.

Under the order, these personnel are defined as fishers who “regularly perform duties away from the principal place of business,” and “whose time and performance is unsupervised by the fishing vessel owner,” or whose actual work hours at sea “cannot be determined with reasonable certainty.”

The International Labour Organization criticized this broad definition, stressing that it “can potentially apply to all fishers who work on vessels and are therefore always ‘away from the principal place of business,’” In addition, fishers’ work hours at sea greatly depend on the availability of catch and other factors, ILO said.

Asked about this, DOLE Region 12 in its email response to Bulatlat only reiterated the provision and said that field personnel “are paid [a] specific amount for rendering specific service or performing specific work.”

The agency, however, said that classifying fishers as field personnel has some advantages such as having more flexible working hours, “allowing them to adapt to the dynamic nature of fishing activities and environmental conditions.”

Asked for statistics on fishing companies’ personnel and employees, DOLE said that it only has information on the latter. It was also unclear how many of these employees are fishermen or administrative workers.

For Lausa, having salary and wage-related benefits is the best option for fishers and their struggling families. “The government should do something. They should stop the ‘No work, no pay’ scheme because our husbands are working very hard even if they don’t capture a huge volume of fish.”

“Look at the owners here, they are the only ones getting wealthy. They became rich because of their workers, they should remember that,” Lausa added. (RTS, DAA, RVO)

Reporting for this story was supported by the Environmental Data Journalism Academy – a program of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and Thibi.

Census, fisheries, and poverty data were sourced from OpenStat, the Philippine Statistics Authority’s website for open-access data. The production volume and value data were used to analyze the commercial fisheries production among provinces in the Philippines, as well as its share in the overall fisheries industry. The data on the number of Filipinos engaged in fisheries was sourced from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) via the Freedom of Information portal, through a request made by another fellow in the Environmental Data Journalism Academy. Registered commercial vessels in the Philippines data was requested from BFAR-Fisheries Regulatory and Licensing Division and was later scraped using Tabula and Adobe Acrobat for scanned PDF files. Additional data on commercial fishing vessels in Soccsksargen was requested from BFAR. Data cleaning and analysis were done using Google Sheets and can be accessed here.

Geospatial data on the Philippine administrative boundaries was sourced from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, while the standardized list of provinces and municipalities came from the Philippines’ Unified Accounts Code Structure website.

Leads from colleagues and one of the interviewees, as well as via email and in-person requests, enabled interviews in General Santos City and nearby Sarangani province. For fact-checking, Zoom interviews were conducted with independent experts in the field, in addition to obtaining public records and relevant reports online, if not from interviewees.

Finally, this was the result of collaboration between the author, and the data and story mentors from and Earth Journalism Network, Aika Rey and Camille Elemia, respectively.


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