IUU, Climate Change & Geopolitics: A Triple Threat to Livelihoods in the Philippines

It doesn’t take long to see the deep interconnectedness of nature and community in the Calamianes Islands in the Philippines. With countless fishing boats bobbing in the waves, homes nestled next to expansive mangrove forests, and dinner tables filled with fresh fish, it is obvious how important the natural world is for the people who live on the islands.

The rich marine biodiversity and fish that inhabit this region are essential for livelihoods - with an average of 4 million metric tons of fish caught every year in the Philippines. However, these resources are increasingly under threat. Overexploitation, including through illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the Philippines has diminished the varied supply of fish that coastal communities rely on to eat and sell for livelihoods. Annually, the Philippines loses about 1.3 billion pesos (about $25 million USD) to IUU fishing. Compounding the threat from overharvesting, the impacts of climate change on coral reefs and mangrove ecosystems - such as ocean warming, sea level rise, and increasing acidification -  have significant impacts on the future food security, employment, and livelihoods for these and other coastal communities.

For over three decades now, USAID has been at the forefront of providing support for marine and biodiversity conservation in the Philippines, from advancing decentralized coastal zone management in the 1990s to managing fisheries in the past decade through award-winning programs like the Ecosystems Improved Sustainability for Fisheries (ECOFISH) program. USAID is continuing these efforts by combating IUU fishing practices and simultaneously strengthening conservation in an effort to prevent marine biodiversity loss.

Promoting compliance with fisheries management regulations and taking enforcement actions against those that break the rules is no easy task in a country with more than 7,000 islands.  Decentralized management approaches that create clear fishing rights and tenure can achieve strong compliance in local fishing areas. That situation changes, however, when fishing rules are violated by industrial fleets from other areas or other countries. 

The impacts of distant water fishing fleets on fisheries, food security, and livelihoods can be seen in the West Philippine Sea, an area under jurisdiction of the Philippines that borders the South China Sea. Exceptional marine biodiversity in this area supports rich fisheries. However, jurisdictional disputes in the area have led to tense conflicts that hamper fisheries management and enforcement. As a result, industrial vessels from other countries are illegally harvesting marine resources that are important to the Filipino people and economy.

Improving maritime security to safeguard fisheries and protect the maritime exclusion zones of partner countries is an important part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy. In solidarity, through our programs and our staff, USAID is actively engaged with industry, civil society, and government partners to advance transparency, accountability, and rule of law in coastal fisheries. 

An example of this work is USAID’s Fish Right program, which is a partnership between the Governments of the United States and the Philippines with the goal to promote sustainable fisheries. This $28 million project takes a multifaceted approach to reduce threats to marine biodiversity in the Calamianes Islands as well as the West Philippine Sea, Southern Negros, and the Visayan Sea. Through this partnership, Fish Right works to combat IUU and climate degradation threats by working with fisherfolk, governments, and community organizations.

Fish Right is addressing IUU issues by collecting data and quantifying the impact of destructive fishing, and strengthening technology and innovation partnerships between key stakeholders. The program released the IUU fishing index and threat assessment tool (I-FIT) in 2021 which lays out a systematic approach for assessing, monitoring, managing, and communicating IUU fishing risk. With this tool, the program collated results into a report that serves as an important building block for the government of the Philippines to understand the magnitude and hotspots of IUU fishing in the Philippines, and plan and implement targeted responses. While this data collection continues, the program is simultaneously charging towards the goal of a 10% increase in fish biomass in the regions it supports - with activities like updating fisheries ordinances, establishing Marine Protected Areas, and training local organizations on ecosystem-based fisheries management. Many of Fish Right’s activities are rooted in knowledge and relationships that USAID programs have been fostering for decades, like in the Siete Pecados Marine Protected Area

Since 2018, Fish Right has trained more than 6,100 local fisheries managers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and resource managers on improved fisheries management, leading to the enactment of 50 local-level policies and 2.1 million hectares under more effective management. 

With more programs like this, fish will be available for generations to come for the vibrant coastal communities in the Philippines and around the world. USAID remains committed to strengthening fisheries management and enforcement to create a fairer and more sustainable future that respects the human dignity of all.  

For more information, please visit USAID’s Marine Conservation and Sustainable Fisheries Community of Practice. Fish Right is implemented over a period of seven years (2018-2025) by the University of Rhode Island in collaboration with a consortium of implementing partners:

  • PATH Foundation Philippines Inc.
  • Silliman University
  • Marine Environment and Resources Foundation
  • NGOs for Fisheries Reform
  • Resonance
  • Sustainable Fisheries Partnership