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What to do with the fish pens in Laguna de Bay

(Part IV and last of the series)

Updated

 

Dr. Emil Q. Javier

Dr. Emil Q. Javier

 

These four columns were provoked by the directive of the President two years ago to dismantle all the fish pens in Laguna de Bay. The Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA) complied as ordered and issued Resolution 518 Series of 2017 “directing all operators of existing fish pens and cages to harvest their fishstocks and demolish their structures by 31 March 2017, otherwise the same will be done by LLDA.”

The ostensive reasons were 1) the fish pens were unfairly depriving the small fishermen of their livelihood, and 2) fish culture is polluting the lake via the process of eutrophication. Both are exaggerations and not supported by facts.

But more sinister, and the reason for this overkill of columns, are the implications of these arguments against the future of our emerging aquaculture industry.

Globally, fish farming (aquaculture) is the fastest growing food producing sector. In 2015, our food production from aquaculture for the first time exceeded the total combined catch from commercial and municipal fisheries (2.35 million tons vs. 2.30 million tons, respectively). Just like the rest of the world and perhaps even more so because of our vast marine resources, we shall be relying more and more on fish farming for our future food needs.

Therefore, banning fish farming in our inland waters (lakes, rivers, dams) and marine waters for the reasons cited are groundless and are against our national interest.

In the first place, of the 90,000 hectares of Laguna de Bay, only about 12,000 hectares currently are devoted to fish pens and cages. The balance of 78,000 hectares are open to fishermen. Besides, periodically, strong typhoons devastate the fish pens and cages and fortuitously release tens of thousands metric tons of cultured bangus and tilapia into the lake which add to fisherfolk catch.
Moreover, the additional employment created by fish farming more than compensate for the dimunition of employment from fish capture.

Secondly, fish farming is the least to blame for the eutrophication of the lake (excessive dumping of nutrients, principally nitrogen and phosphates, leading to algal blooms and exhaustion of oxygen supply of fish). In fact, fish harvesting is a productive way of cleaning the lake.

An inter-agency scientific panel led by Academician Rodel Lasco estimated that the waste load of Laguna de Bay is in the order of 13,800 tons of nitrogen per year. Of the total, 79% come from domestic/sewage sources; 16.5% from irrigation water; 4.5 % from industrial effluents, and only 0.5% from all other sources, including fish culture.

A Revised Laguna de Bay Fishery Zoning and Management Plan

It is, there, fore very encouraging that after the initial chaos, LLDA led by its energetic general manager, former Pateros Mayor Jaime C. Medina, recently adopted a revised fishery zoning and management plan for the lake by way of LLDA Resolution 540 Series of 2018.

The new plan was arrived at after two years of consultations with the local government officials of Rizal and Laguna, and with fisherfolk and fish pen operators. Researchers from the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD-DOST), Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR-DA), UP Los Baños (UPLB) and the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) served as resource persons.

The key features of the new fishery plan for Laguna de Bay are:

1) limit of 9,200 hectares for fish pens and cages;

2) 60:40 allocation of fish pens/cages for small fishermen and their associations versus allocation for commercial fish pens operators;

3) clear delineation of sites for fish pens and cages; provision for access lanes between pens/cages and wider navigation lanes for free movement of water craft in the lake, and

4) equitable order of priority in grant of permits i.e. first, registered individual fisherfolk from Rizal and Laguna; second, registered fishermen cooperatives, and last, Filipino–owned corporations registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

The limit of 9,200 hectares (13%) for fish culture of the 90,000 hectares expanse of Laguna de Bay was based on the estimated fish biomass production potential of about 300,000 metric tons per year.
The projection was the result of a 20-year study by LLDA researchers measuring photosynthetic rates (production of plant food for fish) at various depths, at different locations and at different times of the year. With a projected yield of four tons per hectare per year, the 9,200 hectares of fish pens will extract 36,800 tons of fish, equivalent to only 1/8 of the maximum annual potential fish biomass yield, and therefore well within the lake’s producing capacity.

On the other hand, the 60:40 allocation of fish pens/cages between small fishermen versus corporate fish pen operators is in keeping with the Constitutional provision (Section 7 Article XIII) for the rights of subsistence fishermen to the preferential use of communal marine and fishery resources.

However, this favorable allocation is unlikely to be realized without proactive technical and credit support by government to small fishermen and their associations/cooperatives.

Fish pens are expensive to construct. A one-hectare fish pen will cost R700,000.00, well beyond the financial capacity of small fisherfolk. Fish cages are cheaper and more affordable. But out of 5,000 hectares previously allocated for fish cages, only less than 1,000 hectares have been set up by individual small fisherfolk. Thus without government support, the generous allocation for small fisher folk while well-intentioned will be meaningless.

Fish ‘Corporatives’
with Land Bank

This new LLDA fish zoning and management plan is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the innovative “corporative” business model espoused by Land Bank President Alex Buenaventura.

Under this business arrangement, small fishermen will organize themselves into cooperatives and collectively apply to LLDA for rights to, say 20 to 25 hectares in the lake. These water rights will correspond to the land rights of small farmers to their titled lands or the collective rights of agrarian reform beneficiaries.

Land Bank for its part will provide the initial capital and operating expenses, management expertise and market connections. The fisherfolk will work for the joint venture as paid workers.

Part of the income share due to the fisherfolk will be retained by the joint venture to gradually buy out Land Bank, until such time that the fisher folk own say 70% of the enterprise.

Land Bank however, as a minority owner, will continue to provide professional management to ensure viability of the corporative.

Even better, bonafide corporate fish pen operators may be invited to join as co-investors in the joint venture. Benjamin Antonio, chairman of the fishpond operators of Laguna de Bay, and Mel Felix, the group’s spokesperson indicated their openness to entering into partnership/joint venture with the fisherfolk cooperatives and Land Bank. It will be ideal of course that the LLDA assigns corporate fish pen sites adjacent to those of the fisherfolk cooperatives to reduce overhead and facilitate management. Since the fish pen operators are well-versed in the fish growing and marketing business, Land Bank is spared the trouble of providing professional management.

*****
Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP). For any feedback, email eqjavier@yahoo.com.

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