The Making of the Philippine Tuna Capital


A presentation during the 15th National Tuna Congress by Mr. Marfenio Y. Tan, SFFAII President (2006-2011)

Last year, 2012, General Santos City Fish Port Complex (GSCFPC) edged all other fish ports in the country in total fish landing with a total of 139,613 metric tons (MT) gaining the status as the country’s premier fish producer. In 2009, General Santos City or Gensan recorded the highest fish landing in the country for the decade or the past ten (10) years with 143,316 MT of which 92% or 132,211 MT were yellowfin tuna and tuna-like species. The city also topped in 2010 with 143,139 MT of fish landing with tuna accounting 91.6% or 131,127 MT. Being a consistent leader in fish landing volume more specifically of tuna and tuna-like species and being the home to six (6) of the country’s seven (7) tuna canning plants, Gensan has sustained and upheld the title “Tuna Capital of the Philippines”. Allow me to recount the story on how this city by the bay came to earn that title.

Fishing in Sarangani Bay Sarangani Bay was the access point of the first recorded batch of Christian colonizers of the southernmost tip of Mindanao in 1914. The same bay was the landing site of Gen. Paulino Santos and his team when they surveyed the proposed resettlement area in 1938. After which, the first batch of settlers landed on February 27, 1939 on the then Municipality of Buayan, now General Santos City. Before the 1940s, small scale sustenance fishing using primitive methods were being undertaken by few people living around the coast. 
The arrival of migrants from Visayas and Luzon in the mid-1940s marked the beginning of the growth and development of fishing. Various fishing methods like “basnig” (or bag net), “sensoro” (or ring net), “pamunit” and “pamasol” (or hook and line), “baling” (orbeach seine), “bunsod/baklad” (fish trap), “patuloy” (drift gill net), “sudsud” (push net), and other methods were used by migrants from Leyte, Bohol, Iloilo, Cebu, and the Ilocos regions.

Commercial Fishing and Purse Seining

The precursor of the modern method of purse seining was called “guyod-guyod” which means “to pull” and the operations were done manually with non-motorized “banca” or paddled fishing boats. In 1956, the Congson family of Ormoc, Leyte moved from Talomo, Davao to Dadiangas (old name of Gen. Santos City) due to the scarcity of catch in their fishing business. Luciano Congson, the patriarch, pioneered the use of motorized banca powered by 25 horsepower outboard engines, popular brands of which were “Johnson” and “Evenrude”. The smaller engines gave way to larger ones which allowed the “sensoro” to reach farther distances and the nets covering a circumference of between 100 to 120 meters.

Innovation and Improvement

One of Luciano’s son, Dominico Congson or “Doming” as he was more popularly known, with the support of his wife Flor, blazed the trail in marketing the fish catches to different municipalities in South and North Cotabato and Davao by personally negotiating 12-14 hour drive of rugged terrain.

His characteristic innovation and determination led him to redesigning the traditional fishing boats they were using. Months of trial and error resulted to fishing nets that ripped off or twisted during experimental operations. After 18 months, Doming was able to successfully operate the newly designed and improved fishing system anchored on five (5) main features: 1) motorized launch (locally called lantsa) which carried the net; 2) motorized skiff boat which pulled the “payao” or fish aggregating device from the periphery of the net; 3) light boat which carries incandescent lamp powered by mounted generator; 4) ring nets three (3) times the size of the “sensoro”; and 5) service boats with bigger ice boxes. The new method which saved time and effort in hauling the net on and off the “sampana” after each operation was called “unay”, a Cebuano term that means permanent or fixed position, since the net stays fixed on the lansta’s place. The term “unay” was also applied to the “mother boat”. This breakthrough signaled the heavy entry of purse seining and the 1970s saw the proliferation of “unay” fleets and “payaos” in Sarangani Bay, Moro Gulf, and Celebes Sea.

Technological Advancement

Innovation in technology continued in different fronts that spurred the growth of the industry. Introduction of power blocks eased the hauling of catch and the closing of the bottom of net with hydraulic process. The arrival of “super seiners” with sophisticated communication equipment and built-in cold storages and brining facilities resulted to fish carriers with at least 300 MT capacities. The payao which generates algae and barnacles that attract and aggregate the fishes has been redesigned to increase cost- efficiency and effectiveness. The use of light trucks as “fish cars” has also increased hauling efficiency from former capacity of 500-600 kilograms to 9 metric tons or more.

Historic Legal Precedent

The increase of fish catch also necessitated the increase of ice production which posed a problem for the fishermen as the ice plant business then was operated under a sole franchise or exclusive operation under existing laws. The Congson family took the risk in putting up an independent ice plant to support its fishing operation which was in danger of bankruptcy due to shortage of ice supply. A legal dispute ensued that led the Supreme Court to rule that Congson Ice Plant can legally continue and operate in the interest of economic progress. This pioneering legal precedent caused Congress to enact laws leading to the eventual deregulation of the ice plant industry in the country and benefited the whole of the business community. Nowadays, General Santos City has one of the highest numbers of ice plants in the country with registered count of fifteen (15) plants and ten (10) cold storage companies.

Determination and Hardwork

The Philippine Tuna Capital is born of hardwork and determination of the fishermen of this city. I have witnessed this in the lives of my colleagues in the industry and have personally experienced the trials and challenges that come with the business. 
In the year 1970, at the age of 23 years old and after marrying my loving wife Rosalina, I learned the fishing business from my parents-in-law. With their help, I was able to repair an old pumpboat with a starting capital of 200 pesos. After just one week of operation, the pumpboat capsized! Reviving it and continuing the usual operation in a span of three (3) months, the pumpboat again met with mishap while anchored in the shorelines of Lumasal, Maasim. It was wrecked by huge sea waves! After this 2nd setback, I tried again. Accompanied by my then pregnant wife, we went to Glan to buy a new pumpboat. When we were to set for its maiden journey home, two (2) successive storms forced us to stay in Gumasa which had our relative in Bula and Maasim thinking that we met misfortune as we had no contact for about 10 to 12 days. Good weather favored our trip back to Maasim in November of 1970. 
Another challenge was faced on the night of March 3, 1971, while fishing on the high seas with two (2) of my companions. The ordeal was not unique as many of my contemporaries during that period has suffered the same. We encountered an approaching pumpboat with five armed men on board that forced us to abandon our fishing boat to avoid being killed. The modus operandi of the sea pirates in the southern seas became known as “Ambak, pare!” (translated “Jump, comrade!”). We survived the open sea for ten (10) long hours with the aid of a buoy and were rescued and arrived the shores of Maasim after 1:00 PM the following day starving and thirsty. 
With determination, all these discouraging experiences are now merely part of the “adventure” that has led me to witness the growth of this city as the country’s Tuna Capital.

Expanding the Market

I remember a time in the history of fishing here in Gensan that the fishers, including myself, buried unsold and leftover tuna along the beaches of fish landing in Roundball, boundary of Barangay Bula and Barangay Dadiangas South, as the catch was plenty but the buyers few. 
The fishermen searched for more buyers and hoped to expand the reach of the market. 
In 1972, a business associate, Mr. De Leon of Ronquillo Trading, from whom I bought engine spare parts, asked me on the nature of my business. I told him that I was in the fishing industry and caught tuna. He followed up by asking what kind of tuna. I enumerated that we caught all kinds including yellowfin, skipjack, bigeye, bullet tuna and also galunggong and mackerel. This conversation led to the introduction of Sikatuna Fishing Industry of Zamboanga to send their manager purposely to buy tuna for export. The Gensan fishers were given one (1) month to fill-up their 300 ton capacity ship. The exporters were willing to buy skipjack at 1 peso per kilo which was selling locally at 50 centavos. The yellowfin tuna which was sold locally at 1 peso per kilo, they bought at 3 pesos. 
We were able to meet the required demand of the exporter in only 15 days. 
Word about the tuna shipment to Japan quickly spread. After a week, Ricsan, another trading company, also moored its refrigerated ship off the shores across the General Santos City public market today. In less than a month, pineapple giant Del Monte Philippines also sent its own ship. A month later, General Santos City-based Dole Philippines, Inc. followed in buying tuna from local fishermen.

SOCOFA (South Cotabato Fishing Association) 
The year was 1974 when the National Fisheries Commission was convened in Manila wherein President Ferdinand Marcos instructed the fisherfolks to organize themselves by association to be fully represented in the national government. After the convention, Noy Doming, Dario Lauron, and I talked together in organizing an association composed of any person directly or indirectly involved in the industry – fisherfolks, labashera, laborer, biyahera, and the people working in the fish landing – to be the united vigilant voice of the fishing industry in the south. 
The South Cotabato Fishing Association or SOCOFA was founded in1977 under the leadership of Doming Congson with twenty (20) deep sea fishermen rallying behind his leadership. SOCOFA was formally registered in 1979 with Doming as president. In November of same year, Doming visited Malacanang and appealed to President Marcos to establish a fish port in Gen. Santos City.
Unfortunately, Congressman Narciso Monfort of Iloilo City objected to the proposition on the ground that Iloilo had long time been pushing for their fish port but was never acted upon. With the decision of the President Marcos to prioritize the fish port in Iloilo City, Doming pioneered the construction of his own private fish port. This was later followed by others including me, Rudy Rivera, Pat Amadeo, Felix Pontino, and Larry Damalerio.
Entry of the Tuna Canneries 
Again, Doming, as leader of SOCOFA, personally invited Mr. Evaristo – Vice President of Purefoods, to transfer their canning factory from Cebu City to Gen. Santos City, since they suffered zero production in fish canned. After a series of visits, Doming ultimately received a favorable reply from Mr. Evaristo, saying, “Doming, yung hinihingi mo approved na ng Board. We will be there to look for an area for the canning site. Please meet us at the airport.” Purefoods Corporation opened in 1982. Two years later, Sancanco Canning Corporation, sister company of Sta. Monica Corporation, followed suit. Three (3) more canneries opened during the 1990s with combined capacity of 570 MT/ day for the five (5) plants. 
Currently, out of the seven (7) tuna canneries in the Philippines, six (6) are operating in General Santos that includes the following: Alliance (90-140 MT/day), Celebes (75 MT/day), GenTuna (200 MT/day), Ocean (45-80MT/day), Philbest (120 MT/ day), and Seatrade (80 MT/ day) with combined estimated output of 695 MT/day. 
General Santos City Fish Port Complex (GSCFPC)
Doming served for four consecutive years as president with monumental achievements. I followed as the next SOCOFA president and was called to represent the association in formulating the Fisheries Code in Baguio City.

The fishing industry stakeholders once again deemed it the right time to build the Gensan Fish Port under the administration of President Corazon Aquino. In 1987, Mr. Carlos Dominquez, then the secretary of the Department of Agriculture came to visit the city. He called me and mentioned that BFAR already has an existing port with cold storage in Calumpang. I told him that the property was too small, its causeway not usable, and right- of-way was non-existent. I called up Rudy Rivera and together with Mr. Dominguez on board my yacht, we surveyed the best possible site for the proposed fish port. I pointed out the 32 hectare property of Mr. Yabon, encouraging the DA secretary that government purchase the property. I remarked that there is no substitute for said location and that if the fish port will not be built there, that we might as well forget the fish port as a whole. 
Fortunately, the government pushed through in buying the property. 
$200 million fund was granted by donors for the SOC-GEN Integrated Area Development Project of which the GSC Fish Port is included under the Japanese Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund (OECF). I was sent to Tokyo, Japan accompanying DPWH Secretary Singson to sit down with the board in the pledging session in 1989. By the next year, 1990, the Feasibility Study for the port was completed. Master Plan of the port was updated in 1992. 
Construction of the fish port started in December of 1994 with total project cost of Php822 million and by 1999 was fully operational with three (3) harbor basins. 
In 2003, contract of agreement between the Department of Agriculture and China Constructional and Agricultural Marketing Import and Export Corporation (CAMC) was signed for the expansion/improvement of the fish port. By 2007, the project with total cost of $27.3 million was completed. 
The General Santos City Fish Port Complex (GSCFPC) is the country’ major tuna unloading port with major components that include deep wharves, cold storage and processing area, port handling equipment, power substation, waste water treatment plant, water supply system, and other ancillary facilities. Two (2) cold storage plants operate at negative (-) 35°C with combined capacity of 3,000 metric tons. To cater to the landing and trading requirement of its clientele, four (4) major landing quays/wharves and four market halls are also managed. 
Operation of the fish port paved the way for larger and higher quality fisheries production, serving the needs of both large and small fish producers and processors. The port supplies majority of the fish raw material requirement of the six tuna canning factories of the city. Equally important, is the laboratory facility inside the complex utilized specifically for testing the quality of tuna bound for international trade. It is owned and managed by the private non-government organization Phil Export. 
In support of our tuna exporters, the GSCFPC sustains its adherence to the principles of Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) / Good Handling Practices (GHP) and the Standard Sanitation Operating Procedures (SSOP) to comply with the stringent requirement in food safety of the importing countries such as the EU and the USA. After the fish port passé the sanitation and handling requirements of the European Union in early 2008, significant increase of processed tuna exports to EU markets resulted.

The Philippine Fisheries Development Authority (PFDA), which manages the fish port, aims to continuously improve the port facilities and develop more efficient fish certification system that meet international standards to be more competitive in the ASEAN and international market.
SOCSKSARGEN Federation of Fishing and Allied Industries, Inc. (SFFAII) 
As the tuna industry in the city grew, so too did problems and challenges that the industry faced. One particular issue came up in 1999 wherein because of 111 fishermen arrested in Palau for encroaching in their fishing grounds and numerous violations committed by pump boat operators, diplomatic ties with Palau government was in jeopardy. At that time, several associations were already organized to represent the various sectors of the fishing industry. SOCOFA evolved into SOCOPA or South Cotabato Purse-Seiners Association as it better represented the particular sector. Industry- related organizations included the Southern Philippines Boat

Owners and Tuna

Association (SPBOTA), Umbrella Fish Landing Association (UFLA), Tuna Cooperative of General Santos City (TUNA COOP), and some other groups that have ceased to exist at present. But even with the many associations, to quote Mr. Domingo Teng, “most of them were somehow inward looking… and seems to be quite fragmented as an industry, not acting as one, so less was attended to the policy environment of the industry.” With the looming diplomatic challenge with Palau, the then City Mayor Adelbert Antonino suggested in one meeting that the industry should group and unite into one body, so that one singular voice can be heard nationally and internationally, and can lobby for some assistance to the national government. In May of 1999, an organizational meeting was facilitated by the SOCSARGEN – ADPO (Area Development Project Office) under the leadership of Director Meriam Amerkhan. The fishing associations with several government agencies that included the LGUs of General Santos City and Sarangani Province, BFAR, Philippine Coast Guard, DTI, PFDA, and GEM established themselves as the SOCSKSARGEN Federation of Fishing Associations and Allied Industries. Mr. Domingo Teng was elected as the chairman with Mr. Joaquin Lu as co-chairman. The following year 2000, SFFAII was awarded by USAID a grant in the total of Php1.5 Million to fund salary of office personnel, promotion activities, and technical assistance on policy issues, through the proposal of GEM (Growth with Equity in Mindanao) – General Santos. Since then, the Federation – now officially called the SOCSKSARGEN Federation of Fishing and Allied Industries,Incorporated or SFFAII, has blazed the path in several fronts, significantly contributed to the industry, and played a big role in sustaining the title of Gensan as the tuna capital of the Philippines.

Over the years, SFFAII has been effectively fulfilling its vision- mission being instrumental to the passing of legislation, policies, and regulations by participating in assemblies and public consultations. It has memberships in the policy and advisory bodies of the Department of Agriculture such as the National Tuna Industry Council, National Agriculture and Fisheries Council-Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture, and the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Resource Management Council. The Federation has been actively participating as part of the Philippine delegation in the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. Locally, it has membership in committees of the General Santos City Local Government’s Committees on Bankability, Competitiveness, and Good Governance as well as being one of the board members of General Santos Small and Medium Enterprise Development, Inc. (GSC- SMEDCI).

The Federation is a non- government, non-profit umbrella organization of seven (7) associations with over 120 companies involved in fishing, canning, fish processing, aquaculture production and processing, and other allied industries. Its membership cuts across the entire value chain from the capture fisheries sector, composed of the hand line group, the small, medium and large commercial ring netters, and purse seine operators, to the fish processing sector composed of the big canning operators, fresh chilled and frozen processors, and value adding processors. Based in General Santos City, it is governed by a Board of 14 Directors with the Executive Director supervising the day-to-day operations and spearheading all advocacy works. 
As we continue the tradition of advocacy and active support and participation in relevant issues and immediate concerns affecting the fishing industry, the Federation hosts this annual National Tuna Congress, now on its 15th year!


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