It takes Romeo Sarco 36 hours to travel eastward by motorized boat from Infanta, Quezon, where he is based, to Benham Rise, where he has been fishing for the past two decades.
The scorching sun and tumultuous waves make the voyage difficult, while the frail wooden banca that he uses makes the trip perilous.
It is a risky endeavor, but, there, he can catch fish more easily, at Benham Rise, the 13 million hectare territory at the eastern Philippine seaboard where high-value pelagic species like mackerel and tuna abound.
In less-endowed waters near home, Romeo needs 10 days to catch the same quantity of fish that he can harvest in only two or three days at Benham.
Rich fishing grounds
However, Benham can be difficult to leave behind for the return trip to Infanta, when the fish are in season. This is why he welcomes Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol’s proposal to build a multi-purpose structure at Benham Bank, the shallow portion of the territory, that can serve as dock and base station for fishermen.
“Tuwang-tuwa kami, kasi ‘pag may malakas na huli, pwede na lang kaming tumali diyan. Hindi na kami uuwi. Nakatipid kami sa konsumo (We were very happy because when the fish are in season, we can just dock there. We don’t have to go back home right away, and we save on consumption),” Romeo told InterAksyon in an interview on Sunday, during an expedition of the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, aboard the M/V DA-BFAR to Benham Rise.
Piñol announced his plan to put up the structure on Saturday, the second of the three-day voyage, to journalists who joined the expedition.
It took 20 hours to get to Benham Bank, and another 20 hours to return to Infanta.
Aside from a dock for small fishermen, Piñol also envisioned the structure to be a research station, with a landing pad for helicopters patrolling Philippine waters, and a jump-off point for divers and tourists.
He planned to update President Rodrigo Duterte about the expedition during their Cabinet meeting Monday, and hoped to obtain his go-signal right away.
As soon as the Agriculture Secretary gets the President’s okay, he would begin discussions with off-shore construction companies and proceed with the bidding process.
Sec. Piñol hoped to complete the structure within the next two to three years.
Sarco reported he has seen foreign fishermen in the area, while his fellow fishermen from Infanta have experienced being tailed by foreign boats to serve as scouts to favored fishing grounds. As it was nighttime, the Filipino men turned off their lights to make it difficult for the foreigners to go farther.
Foreign fishing interests had the nerve to do so, Piñol said, because the Philippines had no authoritative presence in Benham Rise to protect the interest of the local fishing communities.
He envisioned the proposed multi-purpose structure at Benham as a base for guarding Philippine territories against poachers and illegal fishers. It would also allow the country to explore and exploit the area further, eager to tap into the potential source of food production, as well.
“I cannot count how many want to go diving at Benham Rise,” Sec. Piñol added. If he could arrange for tourists to go to Benham Rise during parts of the year when the water is calm, they would be more aware of the territory’s importance, and with greater awareness, people would also have a stronger tendency to want to protect it.
Ram Yoro of the organization Philippine Technical Divers, however, cautioned that only technical divers could fully appreciate the biodiversity in the seabed, as the marine feature is too deep for recreational divers to reach. Having joined the expedition, he did note that visibility was exceptionally clear, having reached 60 meters down.
During his two-hour dive with other members of Philtech on Saturday, he spotted an abundance of geological formations, some butterfly fish, wrasses, and mackerel.
Special fisheries management area
According to Raffy Ramiscal, PhD, a scientist who has been doing exploratory fishing aboard the M/V DA-BFAR since 2006, there is a high catch rate for big-eye tuna, yellowfin tuna, and albacore tuna at Benham Rise, at 20 fish caught per 1,000 hooks – comparable to the fishing grounds off General Santos City, in Celebes Sea, Siargao Island, and Samal Island.
At a media briefing on Friday, Ramiscal rated Benham Rise as a potential alternative tuna fishing ground, but recommended that it be made a “Special Fisheries Management Area” (SFMA), where there would be a “strong regulatory system in place” to ensure sustainability of the fish resources.
The government would develop tuna handline fishing and other responsible fishing methods for small fishermen. There would be a monitoring system and documentation, as well.
A limited number of ringnet boats could be granted access, subject to “management measures and compliance” under the SFMA. They would be given “special permits on a controlled level”.
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