Something fishy?

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Since the government is moving to protect the livelihoods of Filipino fisherfolk, it should complement a three-month ban on the sale of imported fish in wet markets with measures to boost domestic fish production.

We have so many tasty fish species that are rarely seen these days. Remember dalag? Mudfish is better than lapu-lapu (grouper) for cooking pesa. Dalag thrives in swampland. Why can’t we breed it on a large scale? Kitang (spotted scad) and large fresh danggit (rabbit fish) are also delicious, but they are not common in wet markets. Kanduli (salmon catfish) for sinigang sa miso has also become scarce. Even biya (goby), which is good braised in coconut milk, seems to be dwindling.

We must also save the sinarapan, the world’s smallest commercial fish, from extinction in Bicol’s Lake Buhi, and the tawilis (herring) and maliputo from their endangered status in Taal Lake. Aquaculture experts blame the proliferation of farmed tilapia in the lake for the depletion of maliputo and tawilis.

Maliputo is actually talakitok (trevally), which is turned into the more delectable prized maliputo by the combination of sea and lake water and the unique aquatic-volcanic ecosystem and algae in Taal.

Several people I know who are fond of seafood are discombobulated by the ban starting Dec. 5 announced by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) on the sale of imported fish in wet markets, particularly pink salmon and white pompano.

Members of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Board of the Philippines (FAB), composed of seafood importers, traders, canners and processors are also confused.

The ban supposedly won’t apply to supermarkets, restaurants and institutional buyers. But the FAB says that the BFAR itself, in a legal opinion in 2020, said even supermarkets and online markets selling fresh or frozen seafood are considered wet markets.

The upcoming ban, according to fisheries officials, is meant to protect local fisherfolk during the closed fishing season from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15 next year.

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On the other hand, the government has approved the importation of 25,000 metric tons of frozen galunggong (round scad), mackerel, bonito and moonfish, which can be sold in the wet markets to stabilize supply and prices. Don’t they also pose competition, especially the large GG, to the catch of local fisherfolk?

When the ban on wet market sale takes effect this Monday, those who miss their salmon from the wet markets can still get the fish – at triple or quadruple the market price – in sushi bars and other restaurants. As for white pompano, it’s not used for sushi or canned seafood. Do we have to go to a restaurant to enjoy fried or grilled pompano?

Yesterday, Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr., perhaps smelling something fishy, filed a resolution seeking a House probe on the BFAR ban. Barzaga said it deprived ordinary Filipinos of the chance to buy salmon and pompano at much lower prices. Sen. Raffy Tulfo also called the ban “very anti-poor.”

Oh well, those who don’t want to splurge on salmon during the banned period will just have to get their day’s dose of Omega 3 from food supplements.

Omega 3 has been scientifically established as one of the healthiest nutrients. And among the best sources of fish oil is salmon.

You’ve seen those bottles of Omega 3 fish oil supplements: the priciest are those sourced from Alaskan salmon. The labels say “wild,” but I believe this is misleading; genuine wild salmon is endangered and the price of oil derived from it would be sky-high. In Norway, a top salmon producer, I learned that commercial salmon is mostly farmed.

As in any supplement, the best source of Omega 3 is not a capsule but the natural item: in this case, eating the salmon. Those suffering from gout also find salmon oil beneficial.

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We have local salmon, but these are small and the taste is inferior to the imported large ones caught in cold waters.

Prices of salmon steaks and fillets, whether fresh or smoked, range from expensive to eye-wateringly prohibitive, depending on the place of origin and whether it is farmed or genuinely wild.

Fortunately, my favorite salmon parts are the head and tail (great for sinigang or braised) plus belly slices (perfect for deep frying a la lechon kawali). And fortunately, these have become widely available in the supermarkets and wet markets. Being considered salmon retaso or scrap parts, they are sold at prices much lower than the prized steaks and fillets. Another personal favorite is white pompano.

You can’t eat only two types of fish day in and out, and colonial mentality does not determine my taste in fish. I also buy a lot of domestically produced tilapia and the larger pla-pla as well as hito or catfish (bred mostly in tanks these days), alumahan (long-jawed mackerel) and matang baka (purse-eyed scad). I love bangus (milkfish) especially from Dagupan and the large sabalo, tanguigue (Spanish mackerel) as well as maya-maya (red snapper). And I eat a lot of GG of all sizes.

But I like having a wide variety of choices, at reasonable prices.

How do wet market retailers and consumers tell imported GG from the domestically cultured? White pompano is also being cultured in the country. Do we ask for documents? No national ID, no market entry?

If the government wants to stop the spread of those imported items in the wet markets, they shouldn’t go after the retailers, who only buy their fish from the wholesalers. Instead, the government should plug the leaks, if any, in the wholesale distribution chain. It should shoo away foreign poachers from our fishing grounds, particularly Chinese fleets catching the large GG, and boost the capability of small-scale fishermen to go into deeper waters.

The government should also do more to boost domestic aquaculture, and revive our fish species that are disappearing from the markets.


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