The Philippines, having one of the longest coastlines in the world and a hub of marine biodiversity, is abundant in fishery resources. However, this also makes the country highly vulnerable to climate change affecting millions of Filipinos who rely on fishing for food and livelihoods. Stressors related to climate change, such as sea-level rise, increasing temperature, extreme weather events, and ocean acidification, have resulted in dwindling fish supply over the years.

As climate change continues to threaten the fishery sector, the government, in collaboration with the local government units and local communities, is taking bold steps to manage its risks and protect the fishing industry.

One initiative is the “Nationwide Vulnerability and Suitability Assessment and Mapping of Capture Fisheries and Aquaculture Sectors,” implemented by the Department of Agriculture-National Fisheries Research and Development Institute (DA-NFRDI).

This nationwide assessment generates reliable scientific information, providing a clear classification of vulnerable areas, regions, and sectors in the country, enabling the fishery and aquaculture sector to prepare and manage short and long-term effects of climate change.

Funded by the DA-Philippine Rural Development Project (PRDP), the project was conducted from February 2019 to December 2022.

“We used a Fisheries Vulnerability Assessment Tool or “FishVool” to generate the data and information that we needed. We also used this to determine the vulnerability and suitability of the identified priority fishery commodities for capture fisheries and aquaculture,” said Dr. Mudjekeewis Santos, NFRDI scientist and project leader.

The assessments focused on physical infrastructure, ecological, financial, social, or spatial aspects of the place, region, or community, which were identified as key components under the “Climate Change-Disaster Risk Management Strategic Framework” of the DA-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

According to Dr. Santos, vulnerability and suitability assessment tools specific to fisheries are useful because they provide a way to understand the interactions among the natural system, pressures, and threats that serve as a basis for developing options and strategies for climate change adaptation. “It also improves the targeting and effectiveness of our adaptation actions,” he added.

Assessing suitable, climate-resilient areas to catch and grow high-value fish

Data for FishVool were gathered through focus group discussions consisting of representatives from 81 provinces in 16 regions of the country. Participants were composed of representatives from BFAR Provincial Fishery Office, Office of the Provincial Agriculturist, PSA, BFAR NSAP, academic institutions, CSOs, FARMC, and industry.

Parameters used for vulnerability both for capture fisheries and aquaculture were: sensitivity, exposure, and adaptive capacity. Meanwhile, to identify suitable production areas of production, suitability assessment using a habitat suitability model was developed including data on fishing location, environment, soil type, distance from the river, climate type, typhoons, and water source.

Overall assessment for both capture fisheries and aquaculture showed that in 81 provinces, 13 are highly vulnerable to climate change. These are: Aurora, Bulacan, Tarlac, Cavite, Antique, Capiz, Cebu, Misamis Oriental, Kalinga, Marinduque, Oriental Mindoro, and Romblon. Specifically, 22 provinces are highly vulnerable for capture fisheries while 10 provinces for aquaculture.

The study also noted that the common effects of climate change were declining catch rates, mortality rates, and decreasing length size of fish that fisherfolk catch and harvest over the years.

The adaptive strategies recommended by the study to alter the effects of frequent weather disturbances included strengthening climate change awareness and access to information, modifying gears and cultural practices, and implementing community support systems and programs.

Climate change vulnerability and suitability of high-value fishes

Results using the combined vulnerability and suitability assessment tool showed that some priority fishery commodities have a low vulnerability to climate change but high suitability for catching or farming them or vice versa.

Eight high-value fishes, 6 for capture fisheries and 2 for aquaculture, were assessed: Bali sardine, roundscad, skipjack tuna bigeye scad, dolphinfish, yellowfin tuna, tilapia, and milkfish.

Bali sardine (Sardinella lemuru) or “tunsoy” is one of the highly abundant sardine species that can be caught in the Philippines. Region 5, a major fishing ground, was found to be highly vulnerable to climate change. Meanwhile, Bali sardine was found to be highly suitable in the provinces of Bataan, Tawi-tawi, Sulu, Basilan, Zamboanga del Norte, and Agusan del Norte.

Scad (Decapterus spp.) or “galunggong” is of one the country’s most commercially important small pelagic fishes. Traditional fishing grounds are located in the Sulu Sea, Visayan Sea, Lamon Bay, Cuyo Pass, Ragay Gulf, Tayabas Bay, and Sibuyan Sea. It is highly suitable in regions 4B, 5, 6, and BARMM.

Skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis) or “gulyasan” is one of the most dominant tuna species with the highest volume of production situated in South Cotabato. This tuna is highly suitable in Zamboanga del Norte and has a low vulnerability to climate change.

Bigeye scad (Selar crumenophthalmus) or “matambaka” is considered a cheap source of protein in the country. Suitable areas are in regions 9, 11, 13, and 5 though there is high vulnerability in Antique, Cebu, Romblon, and Aurora.

Dolphinfish (Coryphaena hippurus) or “dorado” is a valuable and commercial fish that showed high suitability in the West Philippine Sea and shores of Region 1. In Cagayan, it was evaluated as highly vulnerable to climate change.

Yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) dominates most of the country’s yearly tuna production. This tuna is mainly processed for canning and exported for sashimi. It was found to be highly suitable in regions 1, 4B, 5, 11, 12, and BARMM and highly vulnerable in regions 1, 2, 4, 5, 12, and Caraga due to declining catch and juvenile fishing.

Milkfish (Chanos chanos) or “bangus” is the most commercially important and most common fish commodity in the Philippines, contributing 10.5 percent of the total fisheries production in 2021, according to PSA. The combined assessment showed that milkfish production is recommended in regions 4A, 6, 9, and 12, given the low vulnerability to climate change.

Tilapia (Oreochromis spp.) is the second most farmed fish in the country, next to milkfish. Suitable areas for tilapia were found in the provinces of Visayas and Mindanao, while areas, where it is highly vulnerable to climate change, are in regions 1, CAR, 3, 8, and 11.

Impact of the study

“The nationwide assessment is critical in providing relevant and scientific information needed to develop programs and manage strategies to minimize the hazards caused by climate change,” said Dr. Santos.

According to Dr. Santos, results from the assessment were compared for cross-validation of results, which will serve as guide to agriculture agencies, including BFAR, NFRDI, and PRDP to improve the efficiency of the fishery sector through prioritization for fishery-related investments.

“It can also be used as a basis to develop fishery policies and programs for the country,” he added.

Results of the study can be used as a guide to determine a particular area’s potential for fishery-related investments. In addition, it helps determine what specific interventions and strategies can be applied to enhance the resiliency of areas vulnerable to climate change but suitable for investments. ### (Rita dela Cruz)