Trouble in fishers’ waters

May 4, 2023

by Xandra Liza C. Bisenio

One of the main calls during Filipino environmental defenders’ protest action last Earth Day was to defend fishing waters from destructive projects. The protesters included fisherfolk, who reminded me of an elderly man I recently met. He lamented that various undertakings in the Laguna Lake disrupted his livelihood and compelled him to look for other means to earn a living.

I chanced upon him seated near the foot of the Ortigas Metro Rail Transit station one busy afternoon. A red Santa hat crowned his wrinkled but calm face and he wore a bright blue fisherman’s camisa chino over his crumpled skin. He was playing Dahil Sa’yo and Wooden Heart with a leaf between his lips. With his left hand he used an empty plastic bottle as his percussion while with his right hand he held a paper cup to catch what coins or bills pedestrians could give in gratitude for his leaf music.

His name was Mario Osas. He was 76, the same age as my Nanay. He came all the way from Binangonan, Rizal to Metro Manila to make a living out of leaf playing because he no longer gets enough from his job as a fisherman.

Tatay Mario narrated that he has been fishing for 50 years in the Laguna Lake. He pointed to his feet with overlapping middle toes that have hardened from being submerged in cold water for many hours. He said he used to catch well over 20 kinds of fish – including the tilapia, ayungin and talilong. Their catch used to be enough for their families’ consumption and with a surplus to sell.

Tatay Mario, 76, playing Wooden Heart using leaves.

For several years now, however, their catch has dwindled significantly and it’s mostly just the arroyo fish that is caught, Tatay Mario lamented. The arroyo or gloria is a bland, invasive tilapia species that multiplies fast and preys on fish fry. It grows to only 10 centimeters long and was named such for its small size and distinct mole-like mark likened to former Philippine president Gloria Arroyo. Other pests such as the janitor fish, knife fish, and snake turtle, have also invaded fishing waters.

Tatay Mario attributed the decrease in fish catch to road construction and other activities on Laguna Lake in recent years. These projects have been driving them away, he said, and he was grateful that his ability to leaf play “tulad ng National Artist na si Levi Celerio (like the National Artist Levi Celerio) has somehow, albeit barely, helped tide him over.

Official statistics attest to dwindling catch. Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) data show that the country’s fish production decreased between 2011 and 2022. Fish production pertains both to wild fish that are captured or those that are cultivated. On the said period, production volume fell from 5 million metric tons (MMT) to 4.3 MMT.

A study conducted for the Environmental Protection Research Awareness International Journal of Research and Development in 2021 meanwhile observed the poor quality of Laguna Lake. It has fallen below the “C” classification, indicating its worsening condition. Based on Department of Environment and Natural Resources guidelines, the lake received the score of 48% for fishing mortality or the loss of fish in a fish stock through death. It got 53% for fish native species composition or the amount of fish species that had been historically present and not introduced into the lake. Its zooplankton ratio was 68 percent. Its catch per unit effort or level of fish abundance was very low at 22 percent.

Advocates cite some reasons behind the deterioration of the Lake. Fisherfolk group Pambansang Mamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) spokesperson Ronnel Arambulo said that an ongoing flood control project, road construction, deforestation, an old hydraulic structure, an additional floodway infrastructure, and siltation, have been contributing to what they describe now as stale Laguna Lake water.

Arambulo, himself a fisherman from Binangonan, narrated that there is an ongoing flood-control project that will surround the Lake and run from Muntinlupa all the way to Los Baños.

He said that while the project’s declared goal is to protect communities by the bay from sinking, Pamalakaya has received reports that some families have been or threaten to be evicted for the project. Arambulo added that there are roadworks along the lake’s coast in Binangonan. He said that digging for these projects has also caused murky waters and fish loss.

Pamalakaya also cited studies pointing out that deforestation around Laguna Lake since the Marcos Sr era has contributed to water murkiness and caused heavy siltation from various sources of waste: households and corporations. This reduced the lake’s depth from 12 to merely 2 meters. Its watershed also narrowed from 93,000 hectares in 1963 to less than 18,000 hectares in 1988.

Moreover, the group has issues with the 1983 Napindan Hydraulic Control Structure (NHCS), which supposedly aimed to control flooding. They said that since the NCHS closed water outlets, the lakeshores were still flooded; the entry of salt water which naturally cleanses the lake was prevented; and water turbidity and the proliferation of water hyacinths led to fish kills.

Pamalakaya added that the fact that more flood control projects along Laguna Lake are underway, such as the Manggahan Flood Control Project, indicates the failure of the NHCS. The implication of more infrastructure projects in Laguna Lake, Pamalakaya said, is more reclamation and hence less fishing waters.

Will rehabilitation be enough? Laguna de Bay, as Laguna Lake is also known, is the largest lake in the Philippines and the third largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Surrounded by the provinces of Rizal, Laguna, Cavite, Batangas, Quezon and Metro Manila, it used to be home to a rich ecosystem including over 30 species of fish and shrimp. It has been a source of food and potable water, and is also used for power generation, irrigation, as a waste sink and flood reservoir.

Whether or not the government’s rehabilitation efforts will be sufficient to return Laguna de Bay to its former state and capacity — as a major source of food, water and livelihood — will be tested. Last we checked, such efforts have only included dredging, regulating fishing waters, and considering an unsolicited rehabilitation proposal from the private sector – for the purpose of turning it into a vibrant ecotourism zone.

But will this really benefit the likes of Tatay Mario and tens of thousands of fishermen and their families who used to depend on Laguna Lake?