Handline fishermen out on the deep sea

Text & Photos By: Buena Bernal

SOUTH COTABATO, Philippines – A quarter of a kilometer away from the fish port, less than a dozen handline fishermen engage in lively banter while sitting atop the vessel they’ve treated home for the past month.

As company-hired tuna classifiers and checkers at the port negotiate the trade of these fishermen’s catch, they act as onlookers from afar.

Some of them wondering how much they’ll earn from the volume of fishes caught, around 30 kilograms each, in their month-long deep sea expedition.

These men have no say on the price of their catch, a customary practice in the tuna industry here at the country’s known tuna capital General Santos City.


Noisy chatter during the pricing persists in the early mornings at the city’s fish port, but none of the noise come from the fishermen who remain powerless in the negotiations.

Tuna is classified, priced according to classification by hired men of big-time tuna exporting companies.


Tuna is classified by inserting a metal rod in random parts of the fish, extracting thin and cylindrical pieces of fish meat. Fish meat will then be inspected by the company-hired classifier’s bare eye.


Despite their non-intervention in the terms of the trade, handline fishermen who go out to the deep sea are treated, by customary practice, not as workers or regular employees but as independent entrepreneurs, supposedly independently selling their catch but in actuality benefiting only under a disadvantageous sharing scheme with boat operators and owners who at times act as dummies of tuna exporting firms.

The boat owners are usually ordinary folks in the village tapped by companies to act on paper as the employers. This way, firms deny employer responsibility when things go murky, such as when the fishermen are caught on foreign waters.

The fishermen lack the protection guaranteed under law in the presence of an employer-employee relationship including employer obligations for workplace safety, social insurance, retirement pay, state-mandated bonuses such as a 13th month pay, and other occupational benefits under law needed to ensure that they and their families have a chance at a better life.

Despite the regularity of the service they render, the informality of their work arrangement from their hiring to the conditions of their actual labor and the provision of pay prevails.


Some are fine with this, kept mum by sheer lack of awareness on their rights or the simple need to earn a living in peace.

Others are speaking out, attempting to break the cycle of destitution within their ranks. 


Outraged, they’re demanding changes, citing alleged corporate attempts at watering down regulatory mechanisms, both envisioned and in place.

A new government order in the works, still being lobbied against by industry power players, seeks to improve their working conditions.

They spend 10 days to 6 months at sea for each fishing expedition, after all.


Twenty-one of these fishermen slept in the cramped space shown in the photo above for a month while at sea.

They are expected to receive a share of around P3,000 to P7,000 each for the month’s work away from their loved ones on land.

Handline fishing in the deep sea uses a vertical rod and a bait to target a fish. Groups of fishermen board a commercial fishing vessel which carries small boats locally known as pakura.


When on the deep sea, each of the men hop on the pakura (seen in the photo below) carried by the mother vessel to start the targeted fishing.


Handline fishing is seen as a more sustainable and eco-friendly method of deep sea fishing compared to purse seine fishing or the use of nets. Purse seine fishing usually involves a needless by-catch of younger fishes, which are important to be kept alive to propagate the sea’s tuna population.

The resulting catch of these handline fishermen in General Santos City – sashimi-grade tuna marketed as one of the world’s best – end up in foreign markets, duly and steeply priced for export.


Where does your sashimi-grade tuna come from? Somewhere along the supply chain is the labor of men like them. (END)