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Fishing yellow fin tuna in General Santos City, Philippines
Fishing yellow fin tuna in General Santos City, Philippines
Madonna Virola

MAMBURAO — In partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), those who fish the waters here in the town of Mamburao are using traditional handlines rather than large trawler nets in the deep waters off Mindoro Strait, in a bid to position the area as a Philippine hub of sustainable tuna fishing.

With traditional handlines, or kawil, they catch only the mature and high-quality tuna. "We go out there into the Mindoro Strait, about 300 fishermen in several boats," says the Tuna Fisheries Association's Roberto Cueto. "When we're not catching much, we stay there for days."

But Cueto, who started fishing when he was child, says the area's fishing industry hasn’t always worked like this. "In 1995, there was illegal fishing with cyanide and dynamite," he recalls. "The catch wasn't as good as now. Some people used dynamite and big nets. In 2008, when we learned about the sustainable way to kill and handle tuna and started using it, we started producing export-quality tuna for at least double the price."

According to the WWF, 60% of the tuna stocks are globally overfished, which makes returning to methods such as those used in and around Mamburao more urgent than ever. Half of the tuna consumed worldwide comes from the Western and Central Pacific, with the Philippines being one of the major suppliers of tuna.

The WWF's projects to establish more sustainable tuna fisheries began with European and Philippine partners in 2011. In particular, the goal is to prevent overfishing of the Philippine's yellow fin tuna stock to secure the livelihood of thousands of families who are dependent on the industry for their livelihoods.

In Mindoro Occidental, the WWF is working in 36 different fishing villages along the west coast. Only those who are registered to fish are allowed to do so, and they have to stay within 15 kilometers of their villages.

"We continue to patrol to maintain the safe sea," says senior police inspector Ronnie de Villa, a member of the task force created to guard the waters. "We continue to educate people through seminars and dialogue with fishermen, especially about the laws that protect the sea."

Mamburao is the first municipality in the country to receive a European Union Certification for conforming to all standards for exporting sustainable tuna.

"In the past, we didn’t see tuna as a primary commodity because Mamburao is an agricultural community and also a fishing community, but it's an eye opener to me that our tuna is of high quality," says Sunshine Singun, a municipal agriculturist.

She says groups from other parts of the country frequently visit to learn from them. "They want to know, to learn how Mamburao was able to maintain the quality of our tuna, basically our best management practices in our fisheries."

The town holds an annual tuna festival that showcases sustainably sourced tuna. Those who make their living fishing the waters parade their best tuna catches in decorated floats while villagers dance around them.

Back at the shore of Mindoro Strait, Roberto Cueto says he hopes that more fishermen will protect the seas so that they can continue to nurture people for future generations.

"It's difficult being a fisherman," Cueto says. "It can be dangerous. I didn't really want my children to get into this, but one of them who is a university graduate has bought a boat and is interested because there is good money to earn through fishing now."

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