OSG to SC: Local court ruling against fisheries order imperils PHL exports


THE government through the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) on Tuesday asked the Supreme Court to reverse and set aside the decision of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 170 on June 1, 2021, declaring Fisheries Administrative Order (FAO) No. 266 unconstitutional.

During oral arguments on the petition filed by the government, Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra also asked the Court to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) and/or a writ of preliminary injunction to immediately stop the implementation of the said ruling, as the resources in the country’s fishing grounds have declined following the trial court’s decision.

He also warned that US$320 million worth of fish products bound for Europe every year are in danger of being rejected if the Philippine  government fails to certify that such fish products were not caught through illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUUF).

Guevarra explained that the country is a state party to various treaties and agreements recognizing the right and duty of states to adopt conservation and management measures for the protection of the marine environment and the long-term sustainable use of living marine resources.

“A declaration of unconstitutionality of FAO 266 frustrates the State’s effort to honor its international commitments and render it powerless to uphold the shared goals these commitments represent,” the OSG said.

“For failure to honor such commitments, the country may lose access to foreign markets for its fish exports,” he added.

He noted that the value of Philippine exports of fishing products amounted to around US$1 billion in 2021, but significantly declined over the years.

“Many of our fishing grounds have gone beyond sustainable fishing levels as a result of intense fishing pressure. As owner of these natural resources, the state is bound to protect the nation’s marine wealth,” Guevarra pointed out.

FAO No. 266 mandates fishing vessels to report their catches through a vessel monitoring system (VMS) and an electronic reporting system (ERS)  in order to curb IUUF.

Guevarra added that VMS and ERS serves as a globally recognized management tool for conservation of marine resources.

These tools, according to the government chief counsel,  aid state implementors and enable them to monitor all registered commercial fishing vessels to ensure that they operate within authorized fishing grounds and guide them in the prosecution of violators of fisheries law.

“Irresponsible use of marine resources endangers their very existence. Enjoining FAO 266 removes one of the most effective tools of the government against IUUF,” Guevarra told the justices.

He maintained that  in issuing FAO 266, BFAR acted pursuant to duty  under the Fisheries Code to ensure a healthy marine environment, using its technical expertise and based on scientific findings.

The OSG also denied the claim of the respondents that FAO 266 violates their right to equal protection of the law and is tantamount to a deprivation of life, liberty or property under the Constitution.

Guevarra stressed that commercial fishing puts a greater burden on marine resources due to use of larger vessels and fishing gears.    “Municipal fishing uses light vessels and is carried out in shallow waters and regulated primarily by the local government units …These substantial distinctions germane to the purpose of the law justifies differential treatment of municipal and commercial fishing,” Guevarra said.

Guevarra denied the claim of the respondents that FAO 266 violated their right to privacy and unreasonable searches.

He said a fishing vessel’s  fishing area, fish catches and spoilage, landing points and estimated quantity and value of fish caught have long been required to be recorded and reported to BFAR upon the completion of its fishing trips.

He said the respondents have no basis to claim illegal intrusion into their fishing activities and unlawful search of data, since FAO 266 merely seeks “to digitize and report in real time ” their activities.

The OSG also asked the Court to make a ruling that would guide the court and the public in future environmental cases as he maintained that the trial court’s June 1, 2021 decision has no legal basis.

Guevarra also accused the Malabon RTC of committing “jurisdictional tresspass” in declaring FAO 266 unconstitutional.

“A regional trial court arrogated upon itself a power reserved exclusively to this Honorable court…Though the issue of prelim injunction has been mooted by the issuance of judgment by the trial court, it behooves this court to make a ruling in order to guide the bench, the bar and the public in future environmental cases that may arise,” Guevarra said.

Among the petitioners being represented by the OSG in the  consolidated cases are the Department of Agriculture, BFAR, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) and Oceana Philippines International.

Named respondents were commercial fishing operators such as the Royale Fishing Corporation, Bonanza Fishing and Market Resources Inc., RBL Fishing Corporation.