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  Straits Times 10 Sep 07
Drop in tuna catch rattles Philippines' cannery row
By Alastair McIndoe

GENERAL SANTOS (PHILIPPINES) - WORKERS hoping to get a shift cleaning fish at the Ocean Canning tuna factory in the southern Philippine city of General Santos must be there well before dawn.

Every morning, about 600 people, mostly women, wait outside the cannery's turquoise metal gates, but only 400 will be picked on a first-come-first-served basis for the day's single shift to debone and scrape the scales off cooked skipjack tuna.

Cannery row in General Santos - dubbed the tuna capital of the Philippines - has been hit hard by an exceptionally sharp drop in the tuna catch this year.

The shortage is causing financial hardship for thousands in the industry as workers take home smaller pay packets due to cancelled shifts and shorter working hours.

In order to get on the production line, 47-year-old Virginia Ebdo is up three hours before the 6.30am start of the shift at Ocean Canning. 'If I arrive late, there is no work, and I lose out on the transport fare. It is very discouraging,' said the careworn mother of five.

Six of the country's tuna canneries are in General Santos, and all are now working reduced shifts, according to the industry's umbrella body.

'For the past 10 years, we have worked three canning shifts a day. Since June, that has been cut to one. We just cannot get the supply,' said Ocean Canning general manager Mariano Fernandez.

Tuna catches have been falling in recent years. Illegal fishing, ignored quotas and the devastating effect of purse seine nets - ocean fishing's combine harvesters - have decimated tuna stocks worldwide.

At the same time, demand for tinned and raw tuna has never been stronger - and not just in the traditional markets. Consumption in China has risen sharply in recent years.

Conservation groups warn that bluefin tuna, used for the best sashimi cuts, and tropical skipjack and yellowfin, which go into the cans, are now so overfished that they face commercial extinction in some catching grounds.

On a wharf near General Santos' container port, cranes load supplies onto the Primrose, a purse seine carrier owned by Manila-based Frabelle Fishing Corp. Under a tarpaulin, shaded from the searing heat, a dozen men mend its enormous nets.

'This is the worst year for catching tuna that I have experienced in the 20 years that I have been in this business,' said Frabelle Fishing marketing manager Domingo Alape.

TSP Marine Industries, a General Santos-based fishing and canning company, estimated that the catch in international waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean in the first eight months of this year is only 35 per cent to 40 per cent of the haul in the same period last year.

Quantifying the extent of the fall in the world's tuna stocks by sharing data was part of an international plan agreed on at a conference in the Japanese city of Kobe in January by the world's tuna conservation organisations.

In the mid-1970s, the global tuna haul was around 400,000 tonnes. But huge demand pushed that to 4 million tonnes in 2004. The Philippines accounted for 10 per cent, putting it in the top five of the world's tuna producers.

Fleet owners and cannery managers say overfishing alone does not explain why this year's catch has been so bad.

Many believe the warming of the oceans through climate change is changing the migratory paths and breeding cycles of tuna.

'But nobody can safely tell you why the catch has been so bad,' said Mr Paul Candelaria, head of the Tuna Association of the Philippines.

For General Santos' beleaguered canners, market factors may also be at play. There is talk that Thailand's much larger canning industry is aggressively buying tuna from fleets plying the western Pacific, where the catch has not fallen as sharply as in the Indian Ocean.

Overfishing is a subject fleet owners are reluctant to talk about, at least publicly.

Privately, some say a major cause for the depleted stocks has been the increase in smaller vessels using nets that can scoop up young tuna.

'We are asking the industry to modify its gear, but we are being told that this can only be done with financial assistance,' said Mrs Visa Dimerin, an assistant regional director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.

Thanks to tuna, General Santos has an unemployment rate well below the national average. The incomes of around 120,000 people - about a quarter of the city's population - come directly or indirectly from this industry.

Several thousand local fishermen work on outriggers called 'bambots', using handlines to catch sashimi-grade yellowfin in the Celebes Sea. 'In better days, they would be out for a month and catch around 30 good-sized tuna. Now, it is only five or six,' said Ocean Canning's Mr Fernandez.

Pride of place in his office is a photograph of him standing next to a 260kg Goliath of a yellowfin that took several hours to haul in.

Without tuna, this city on the main southern island of Mindanao would likely struggle to attract investments.

The soldiers patrolling the city during the recent National Tuna Congress and a five-day tuna festival were instant reminders of a volatile security situation hobbling development in Mindanao.

It is not only the tight supply and soaring price of canning tuna - this hit a record US$1,500 (S$2,285) a tonne in July - that is rattling the industry and putting jobs at risk.

Cannery owners complain of high trade tariffs on exports to the European Union, their biggest market by far.

When asked how all this is affecting the industry's financial health, one cannery manager answered by simply drawing a finger across his neck.

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