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Illegal fish cage operations poison Taal Lake

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  • DECLARED PROTECTED AREA IN DISTRESS

TALISAY and MATAAS NA KAHOY, BATANGAS — Looking down from the wind-swept resorts and hotels of Tagaytay City, vacationers see Taal Lake as pristine and as inviting as before. Indeed, from a distance, the 24,356-hectare body of water that is part of one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions remains a sight to behold, with gentle breezes often rippling its surface.

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Usually overshadowed by Laguna de Bay next door, Taal Lake is tapped for aquaculture, fishing, navigation, and tourism purposes; it is even the water resource of the posh Tagaytay Highlands resort.

TAAL Lake, the third largest lake in the Philippines, is deteriorating fast, choked by over 9,000 fish cages that have mushroomed in its waters.|Balikas Fotobank

The lake is also the habitat of the endemic species tawilis, the world’s only commercial freshwater sardine, and duhol, one of the only three freshwater sea snakes in the world. In the 1920s, it was said to have the most diverse fishery resources among the Philippine lakes, with at least 101 species from 32 families of fish.

These days, Taal Lake’s tilapia farms are now a major source of tilapia, and have as much as a 68-percent share in Calabarzon (Cavite-Laguna-Batangas-Rizal-Quezon) Region’s annual production of the popular food fish.

But the third largest lake in the Philippines is deteriorating fast, and some of its native fish species are already gone. Declared a protected area in 1996 under the National Integrated Protected Area System (NIPAS) Act, Taal Lake nevertheless seems destined to become yet another example of the sorry impact of laws that have no teeth, implementing agencies with limited manpower and financial resources, businessmen who are either clueless or greedy (or both), and local officials who at the very least appear to lack foresight.

Usually overshadowed by Laguna de Bay next door, Taal Lake is tapped for aquaculture, fishing, navigation, and tourism purposes; it is even the water resource of the posh Tagaytay Highlands resort.

The lake is also the habitat of the endemic species tawilis, the world’s only commercial freshwater sardine, and duhol, one of the only three freshwater sea snakes in the world. In the 1920s, it was said to have the most diverse fishery resources among the Philippine lakes, with at least 101 species from 32 families of fish.

These days, Taal Lake’s tilapia farms are now a major source of tilapia, and have as much as a 68-percent share in Calabarzon (Cavite-Laguna-Batangas-Rizal-Quezon) Region’s annual production of the popular food fish.

But the third largest lake in the Philippines is deteriorating fast, and some of its native fish species are already gone. Declared a protected area in 1996 under the National Integrated Protected Area System (NIPAS) Act, Taal Lake nevertheless seems destined to become yet another example of the sorry impact of laws that have no teeth, implementing agencies with limited manpower and financial resources, businessmen who are either clueless or greedy (or both), and local officials who at the very least appear to lack foresight.

Dr. Macrina Zafaralla, a phycologist who has studied Taal Lake extensively, says that while domestic wastes from river discharge are partly to blame for the excess nutrients, fish cages are the primary source of these, specifically the fish feeds, urine, and feces, which find their way to the bottom of the lake.

Tawilis under threat

In a public hearing last year, Protected Areas Wildlife Bureau Director Mundita Lim also reported that four of the lake’s seven endemic species, including tawilis, were already under threat of extinction due to the overexploitation of fishery resources and the introduction of non-native species, which includes the tilapia that fish cage operators propagate.

This is hardly a picture of a protected area, which the NIPAS Act defines as “identified portions of land and water set aside by reason of their unique physical and biological significance, managed to enhance biological diversity, and protected against destructive human exploitation.”

But observers say the DENR has simply been unable to administer, control, and regulate activities in the lake.

Perez allows that since the law gave DENR “the responsibility,” it “would always be blamed” for anything bad happening to the lake, “even if it’s not (DENR’s) fault.” There are those, however, who say that DENR should not let anything stop it from doing its job.

“It’s no excuse,” says Leo Aranel, chairperson of the municipal fisheries and aquatic resources management council in Alitagtag town. “If they can’t handle the job, they could easily pass it on to the municipal governments, which in turn would pass it on to us.”

“It’s just that the DENR is not ready to accept its responsibility,” he adds, asserting that the agency acts only “when things get worst.”

For sure, the current zero-fish-cage-in-Taal-Lake stance of Environment Secretary Joselito ‘Lito’ Atienza, who was appointed to the post only in mid-2007, comes several years late. Atienza has also found himself up against BFAR, municipal mayors, and green groups who insist that the solution lies in simply limiting the number of fish cages in the lake.

BFAR used to have administrative jurisdiction over Taal Lake, but DENR took over after the lake became a protected area. Policy-making functions, meanwhile, were transferred from local government units to the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB), which is headed by the DENR.

Technically, Taal Lake is part of the Taal Volcano Protected Landscape (TVPL), in which the crown jewel is the world’s smallest active volcano. But residents of the 13 towns and three cities that rim the lake say it can more than hold its own in terms of delights derived from it — or at least it used to.

In the 1970s, say lakeside residents, fish could still be seen jumping from the waters, enabling fisherfolk to catch these with ease and delighting tourists to no end. Fisher Mario Gonzales recalls that people used to bathe and swim in the lake. “The waters were so fresh and crystal-clear that I could even use it as a mirror,” he says. “The wind was so refreshing, there was no unpleasant smell, and we could fish anywhere we want.”

This was still true up until the 1980s. But fishers like Gonzales say the lake’s now murky and foul-smelling waters make their skin itch, even as the size of fish catches keep shrinking each day.

“The simplest way to define water pollution is when the lake can no longer provide the least of its resource uses, like bathing and swimming,” says Zafaralla, a professor at the Institute of Biological Sciences at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB).

Protected but barely guarded

And among the simplest ways to keep the lake clean is to make sure that laws and rules designed to protect it are followed. Yet despite its special “protected” status, up until last March, Taal Lake was not assigned a particular staff to monitor it, and had to share five rangers with the rest of the 65,000-hectare TVPL. Even then, only one ranger was assigned full-time to the TVPL; the rest also had to monitor areas outside the protected area.

For the TVPL, that meant only one ranger for every 13,000 hectares — a figure that is a far cry from the DENR’s own target of one full-time ranger per 1,000 hectares for protected areas. According to DENR Forest Ranger Arnel Nisperos, who was among those who had to take on assignments outside of the TVPL, it took some four days for each of them to patrol the sector assigned to them.

The protected areas superintendent or PASU of the TVPL also holds another full-time job. Laudemir Salac, who became the PASU in Taal just last July, is an officer at the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) in Batangas City. His immediate predecessor, Luvimin Gito, who was the PASU for eight years, was his subordinate at CENRO.

Before he was replaced last year, Gito told PCIJ, “What we are asking the national government is to provide us with additional personnel. This is 65,000 hectares so perhaps you will understand our plight.”

Being TVPL superintendent itself is daunting, since one would have to deal with the Batangas governor, 16 municipal mayors, and 187 barangay captains, as well as with the residents of the communities within the protected areas, to extract their participation in keeping these out of harm’s way.

Yet even logistical support for the PASU is sorely lacking. For instance, there is neither a land patrol vehicle nor a motorboat for the superintendent and the rangers’ use. The rangers are even expected to shoulder their own transportation expenses to the lake. And it was only last March that the PASU finally had an office, which was set up on a lot donated by the Talisay municipal government. The office was assigned three permanent personnel — a forester, a ranger, and an administrative staff — none of whom are put on night shift.

Lakeshore residents and observers say it is no wonder then that while there have been times that the fish cages were ordered dismantled by both the national and local governments, these would be put up again almost as soon as they were torn down.

Fish cages in sanctuaries

A 2004 study conducted by environmental science researcher Imelda de los Reyes of the University of Batangas also reveals that even the areas declared by BFAR as fish sanctuaries had been occupied by fish cages. Fish sanctuaries are critical in lake systems since these serve as the breeding ground of native fishes.

De los Reyes later told PCIJ in an interview: “It was either that (the sanctuaries) were not implemented or the people were simply unaware of the existence of the sanctuaries.”

And then there is the popular fishing method called suro, which continues to be used in the lake although this has been banned by Provincial Ordinance No. 4 and the Philippine Fisheries Code.

Suro is a motorized push-net method in which a fine mesh supported by bamboo and iron frames is used. Experts say it is a major factor in the lake’s overfishing problem. A single suro operation can catch 150 kilos daily compared to a small fisherman’s gillnet, which catches five kilos.

“Budget limitations not only diminished DENR’s capability to hire enough personnel to manage 209 protected areas, but the opportunities to set other requirements to ensure protection as well,” noted the ASEAN Regional Center for Biodiversity Conservation (ARCBC) in a 2002 study.

In the case of Taal Lake, DENR may also simply lack the needed background in fisheries to be able to monitor and protect it efficiently.

DENR Calabarzon Regional Executive Director Eduardo Principe himself says that the department knows little about what fisheries experts call a particular body of water’s “carrying capacity,” which determines the allowable number of fish cages it can support. Adds Principe: “It’s only now that we are learning of the carrying capacity. We are just in the beginning of the management process.”

Overstocked and overburdened

Experts say Taal Lake has a carrying capacity of 6,000 fish cages. Last June, there were about 6,796 registered fish cages in the lake, although the real number is probably higher, since many of the cages have no permits. The sizes of fish cages in the lake also vary, and can each measure anywhere from 81 square meters to 40 square meters. (BFAR says there are more than 9,000 fish cages in Taal Lake, while the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office–Calaca, says there are 10,474, of which more than half are illegal.)

Experts say local fishcage operators equate bigger fish stocks and huge amounts of fish feed to bigger harvests. Aquaculturist Josephine de la Vega says this is why fish cage operators in the lake usually stock 375 tilapia fries per cubic meter in a cage instead of BFAR’s recommended 50 fries.

“The body of water can be used for aquaculture,” says UPLB freshwater biologist Dr. Lourdes Castillo, “but you have to make sure that you wouldn’t overburden the water.”

“When you overstock, you overfeed,” she says. “There are many excess wastes that would decompose. These would consume (dissolved) oxygen and fish would die.”

It did not help the lake any that an interim TVPL-PAMB meandered for some nine years before its membership was enhanced by the entry of the likes of small fisherfolk, and only because of the initiative of green groups Pusod Inc. and Tanggol Kalikasan, which is currently headed by lawyer Perez.

Created in 1997, the interim body consisted of the DENR regional chief, provincial planning officer, representatives from both local governments and NGOs, as well as those from other agencies in the area. But its function was limited to approving development permits for projects, such as resorts, within the Taal Lake basin.

Fisherfolk leader Milagros Chavez says that the interim TVPL-PAMB simply ignored whatever fishery issue that groups like hers raised, including the growing problem with fish cages.

“Because there was no functional agency that would manage the lake and local government units were on their own, nobody monitored the overall health of the lake,” says environmental lawyer Ipat Luna.

The “revitalized” TVPL-PAMB, however, remains hampered largely because of lack of funds. In 1997, its interim version had imposed a P10-entry fee on each visitor to the protected area, but this was not collected because of the DENR’s shortage of personnel.

Luna also says up until 2006, the TVPL-PAMB was unable to collect from the Integrated Protected Area Fund (IPAF) the annual amount due it.

Then again, the NIPAS Act has no specific figure for the fund; the law says only that IPAF would come from the government’s annual budget. According to Perez, the annual allocation came to just P20,000 per protected area.

These days, the TVPL-PAMB relies solely on voluntary contributions from the provincial government, lakeshore municipalities, and barangays to finance its meetings and other activities.

In the meantime, DENR’s Principe seems to believe that there is nothing wrong with the sprawling lake that is under his care. He told PCIJ in a phone interview last June: “Most of the lake’s waters are still clean and I think you can still drink them.”|Marlon Alexander S. Luistro*

 

*This three-part investigative report by (Philippine Canter for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) fellow Marlon Luistro looks at how the government and fish cage operators can save the lake from dying, without sacrificing the livelihood of those who earn from fish cages.

**Marlon Alexander S. Luistro was a former writer of Pahayagang BALIKAS

***The foregoing article was first published in Filipino at Pahayagang BALIKAS printed edition, Dec. 31-Jan. 6, 2018.

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