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Time to move on with the fish pens in Laguna de Bay

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Dr. Emil Q. Javier

Dr. Emil Q. Javier

During the first State of the Nation Address (SONA) of the President two years ago, before the closure and rehabilitation of Boracay, and now the order to clean up Manila Bay, President Duterte took a similar step to address pollution of the waters of Laguna de Bay. He ordered the dismantling of the fish pens/cages in the lake. As reported by the press, the premise was fish farming (aquaculture) was fouling the lake, and unduly depriving poor fisherfolk of fishing grounds.

In response, the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA) passed a resolution ordering the dismantling of illegal and non-compliant fish pens and a moratorium on the stocking of fish seedlings on those that remain. To date the LLDA resolution has not been rescinded and the bonafide fish pen operators anxiously wait for LLDA’s final decision.

Fish farming as a sustainable means of helping clean Laguna de bay

Fish farming is not the culprit in the fouling of the waters of Laguna de Bay. As reported by a panel of experts led by UP Los Baños forester and Academician Rodel Lasco, about 80 percent of the nitrogen load of the lake comes from sewage and municipal wastes; 19 percent from irrigation water and industry effluents, and the remaining one percent accounted for by other sources, including fish farming.

The obvious first priority just like in Manila Bay is requiring the local governments, the water concessionaries and the communities around the lake to install sewage systems and stop dumping their wastes into the lake. But the waters of the lake are already heavily laden (polluted) with nutrients. In the meantime, the only practical means to take out these nutrients (mainly nitrogen and phosphorus) is to harvest the planktons and plant biomass which absorb the nutrients by raising plant-feeding fish like bangus and tilapia.

Therefore on the contrary, fish farming properly regulated and monitored could be a sustainable means of cleaning the lake.

This was precisely the original rationale for the introduction of bangus and tilapia pen/cage culture in Laguna Lake. Thus in addition to helping arrest the growing eutrophication of the waters, we realize the additional benefit of raising affordable fish for poor people in the lake towns of Rizal and Laguna, and for Metro Manila.

Recognizing that fish farming is an ecologically sound, equitable and productive complementary use of Laguna lake, LLDA led by its energetic general manager Jaime Medina conducted a series of stakeholders consultations involving the fisherfolk of the surrounding communities, the fish pen operators, the affected local governments, the relevant national agencies as well as representatives from academe on how best to proceed.

These consultations led to a draft program with the following key features: 1) limit fish pens and cages to 9,200 hectares out of the lake’s total of 90,000 hectares, 2) 60% of the area for pens/cages be reserved for small fishermen and their cooperatives, and the rest (40%) for commercial fish pen operators, and 3) relocation of pens/cages in designated zones in the respective bay areas (i.e. east, central, west and south bay) in neat regular patterns, allowing for sufficient distances between pens/cages and providing for wide, navigation lanes for water transport.

The rationale for these provisions are as follows:

The estimated fish biomass potential of Laguna de Bay based upon a 20-year study by LLDA is about 300,000 tons per year. At an average production of four tons per hectare per year the 9,200 hectares of pens and cages will account for 36,800 tons fish per year, well under the 300,000 tons potential, leaving plenty for capture fisheries.

The 60% set-aside of pens and cages for small fishermen and their cooperatives will reserve 5,520 hectares for their exclusive use. Plus the 80,800 hectares of open fisheries, the small fisherfolk of the lake will benefit from 86,320 hectares (i.e. 96% of the waters of the lake). This is more than full compliance in spirit and substance with the constitutional provision that small farmers and fisherfolk be accorded priority access to natural resources.

The commercial fish pen operators are amenable to the two equity provisions but the last contentious issue as far as some of them are concerned, is the requirement to relocate their existing pens to the designated zones. They consider this re-arrangement of fish pens cosmetic and unnecessary, and costly.

However, there is a ready win-win solution to this minor impasse. The pens usually have a useful life of five years. In 2–3 years most of the stakes of existing pens would have rotten and need to be replaced anyway. Thus it is a matter of providing a reasonable transition of, say, two years for the current fish pen operators to relocate to their new designated areas. This will allow them time to fully recover their installation costs while setting up their new pens. Additionally, there will be no gap in their incomes, and as importantly no disruption of fish supply to Metro Manila.

Two years are long enough. The LLDA board ought to act on the draft resolution before them which had benefitted both from the consultations with the lake’s stakeholders and based on the scientific studies LLDA and Philippine Council for Agriculture and Resources Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology (PCARRD–DOST) have commissioned and conducted by researchers from Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources of the Department of Agriculture (BFAR–DA) and the UP System. The second observation is significant because in fairness to LLDA, over the years the agency had endeavored to base its policies and rules and regulations on scientific research.

There is a cost to procrastination. As reported in a study by Rico Ancog (SESAM, UP Los Banos) and Alice Joan Ferrer (UP Visayas) presented last week to the lake’s stakeholders, between 2016 and 2018 the area occupied by pens/cages has declined from 16,041 to 10,188 hectares. Consequently, fish production dropped from 60,635 tons in 2016 to 38,103 tons. The loss of 22,532 tons of fish for Metro Manila could have contributed to the dramatic rise of inflation late last year. This research was funded by the PCAARRD-DOST and supported by LLDA itself.

What is the LLDA board waiting for? Time to move on with the fish pens in Laguna de Bay!

*****
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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