The Philippines is surrounded by a vast aquatic resource base. In 1976 the government adopted a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone covering some 2.2 million square kilometers. However, the country's traditional fishing grounds constituted a relatively small 126,500-squarekilometer area. Fish and other seafood provided more than half the protein consumed by the average Filipino household. Total fish production in 1989 was 2.3 million tons. Of this, 46 percent was caught by some 574,000 municipal and subsistence fishermen, who operated small boats in shallow water, customarily no more than three kilometers offshore. These fishermen were among the poorest of the poor, with incomes averaging only 25 percent of the national average. Another 27 percent of the catch came from the approximately 45,000 commercial fishermen. An equal proportion of the total catch was provided by the fast-growing aquaculture industry. Prawn production, mostly aquaculture, developed rapidly in the 1980s, averaging 31,000 tons during the 1984-87 period. In 1988 exports of fishery products amounted to US$407 million, approximately 6 percent of total exports.
During much of the 1980s, the livelihood of small municipal and subsistence fishermen was undermined by low production, stagnating at approximately 1 million tons per year. A number of factors contributed to the low production: encroachment of commercial fishermen into shallow waters, destruction of the marine environment, over-fishing, and an increasing number of fish ponds. A large proportion of the mangrove forests was cleared to construct fishponds, seriously damaging the coastal ecological system. Coral reefs sustained serious damage from illegal fishing with dynamite and cyanide, and from the muro-ami fishing technique by which young swimmers pound the coral with rocks attached to ropes to drive the fish into nets. Coral also was damaged by silting from erosion caused by deforestation, and inland freshwater lakes were polluted from industrial and agricultural wastes.
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