Taal fisheries recover, can again feed Luzon

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

Most Mega Manilans do not know that their preferred tasty dark tilapia comes from Taal Lake. Taal tilapia are raised in floating pens, 10 by 10 square meters, five meters deep. Escapees before and during the Taal volcanic disturbance teem in the lake, 90 meters deep in some portions, along with the famed tawilis and maliputo (fresh water herring and jack). There are about 6,000 such pens, made of sturdy nets framed by bamboo floaters cum foot walks. Most are owned by some 3,500 members of the Taal Lake Aquaculture Alliance Inc. In addition are about 1,500 unregistered, therefore untaxed pens, mostly of influential locals. In total the pens occupy less than one percent of the 24,000-hectare lake. Taal water is clean but dark due to the depth, and drains out to sea via Pansipit River. It takes about eight to nine months to mature tilapia to marketable size of four meaty pieces to a kilo. Taal produces a hefty 200 tons a day, supplying Metro Manila and mainland Southern Tagalog, nearly half of Luzon’s population. Per kilo farm-gate rate of Taal tilapia has been P80 in past years. Recently, due to eruption-caused shortage, it rose to P103. Supply is normalizing fast. In four months Taal will again be in peak production. Today, generally recovered from disaster, the pens are ready to feed Luzon anew.

Not much was heard outside Taal, until volcano-island erupted in Jan., because it’s pretty much a self-sufficient community. About 13,500 folk from eleven surrounding towns – Laurel, Talisay, Tanauan, Lipa, Balete, Mataasnakahoy, Cuenca, Alitagtag, Agoncillo, San Nicolas, Sta. Teresita – directly are employed in the tilapia pens. They know each other by name or face as relatives or neighbors, and are organized into small family enterprises. In the surrounding towns thrive trade in farm produce, groceries, woven beddings and mats, garments and fabrics, construction supply, home appliances, not to forget the famed Batangas balisong (fan knife). Lakeshore folk do not need to go to Metro Manila to shop or entertain; everything’s in town, so there are few straight public rides to the national capital.

Filipinos thought Taal folk were stubborn to keep sneaking back home and to the pens, defying the police lockdown during the volcanic eruptions. Yet they would have preferred to stay away, for safety. Just that, they were first lulled into false normalcy by the volcanic slow boil. Then the sudden ash spew two kilometers high from the crater caught them by surprise. Only then did they realize it was time to evacuate. Fish producer-processor Norbert Chincuangco, who works among Taal entrepreneurs, recounted the events. Had it been a predicted typhoon, they would have covered the fish pens with net, to prevent escapes. They didn’t think that precaution necessary this time. Too bad, for as it happened, the heavy ash fell on the pens’ bamboo frames, sinking them. The next day the pens resurfaced, ash washed away by the soaking, but with most of the tilapia gone too. That’s when the fish raisers frenziedly tried to harvest and sell what was left. Again unfortunately for them, a local health officer mistakenly warned about alleged sulfur-poisoned tilapia. It took days for the fisheries bureau to correct the misinformation with lab tests. By then the lockdowns had begun.

The fish pen operators and workers have a request for authorities, Chincuangco said. Next disaster, involve them in organizing the evacuations. Train them, for they are capable and trustworthy of looking after each other as relatives, neighbors, and co-workers. They can even help build and run the evacuation centers.

A month ago Mega Manilans began enjoying again their favorite Taal dark tilapia. Post-disaster, the lake’s aqua-culture has stabilized. Not only that, Batangas governor Hermilando Mandanas said in a recent radio interview. Taal folk are so grateful for the outpouring of aid from countrymen during their time of need. Now they aim to repay, in this time of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, in the form of steady, affordable fish supply. Problem is lack of public transport for the harvest inter-province and -city.

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The presidential spokesman says “nobody dies of hunger, not even for a month (of Luzon-wide COVID-19 pandemic lockdown). Doctors know otherwise. From severe organ damage, including kidneys and brain, bodily functions will shut down after three days of no water and 21 days of no food.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

Gotcha archives: www.philstar.com/columns/134276/gotcha

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