Legal loopholes, politics exacerbate Taal’s woes

Declared protected area in distress

Second of three parts

TALISAY and SAN NICOLAS, BATANGAS — More than a decade ago, Talisay resident Vicente Llona’s take-home pay after a day’s hard work at a construction site came to P110.

Today, the 43-year-old high school graduate earns five times as much. Since 2002, he has been growing tilapia in fish cages in Taal Lake, an occupation that now nets him as much as P100,000 every six months — and he doesn’t even have to break much sweat.

“Our job is simple,” says Napoleon Carandang, a fish cage caretaker like Llona. “We just feed the fish thrice a day and wait for at least five months before we can harvest them.”

Livelihood generation and food production were the primary reasons why the national government decided almost 30 years ago to promote aquaculture and encourage fish farming in the country’s lakes. Today fish cage operations in Taal Lake alone directly employ more than 1,500 people while the lake’s tilapia production has helped feed not only residents of the Calabarzon (Cavite-Laguna-Batangas-Rizal-Quezon) Region, but also those in Metro Manila.

But scientists say unregulated fish cage operations have put many of the country’s bodies of water at risk. Indeed, not even Taal Lake’s “protected” status has spared it of the environmental woes attributed to practices particular to untrained fish farmers.

GREED and the lack of political will have caused led to the overcrowding of fish cages, polluting the country’s third largest lake. [photo courtesy of Balikas]

Overstocking and overfeeding

These practices include overstocking the fish cages and overfeeding the fish that lead to excess amount of nutrients in the water. The excess nutrients in turn favor the bloom of harmful algae, which eventually depletes the oxygen in the water and causes fish kills.

Taal Lake was declared a protected area in 1996 under the National Integrated Protected Area System (NIPAS) Act. By then there were already fish cages in the lake. Yet instead of declining in number after Taal Lake came under the NIPAS, the fish cages proliferated all the more. In 1993, there were only 1,601 fish cages in the lake; today the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) says there are 9,188.

Loopholes in the law and a focus on profits on the part of operators and local officials apparently made this possible.

Legal experts point out that as a protected area, Taal Lake has no municipal waters. This means every development in the lake requires not just a mayor’s permit, but also an environmental compliance certificate from the Environmental Management Bureau and a clearance from the Protected Areas Management Board (PAMB), which is headed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

But the lake’s PAMB remained “interim” until 2006, and failed to craft a lake-wide ordinance that would have at the very least set a limit on the number of fish cages, as well as standards regarding stocking capacity.

Fisheries experts also say forcing fish cage operators like Llona and Carandang to undergo seminars and workshops on fish farming — and constantly monitoring them to ensure they follow correct procedures — would have spared the lake much of its present problems.

According to aquaculturist Josephine de la Vega, the operators usually go over the 30,000 to 50,000 stocking density per cage that is recommended by BFAR.

There are fish cages in five of the 13 towns (plus three cities) surrounding Taal Lake — Agoncillo, Talisay, San Nicolas, Laurel, and Mataas na Kahoy. Operators there confirm that they stock around 100,000 to 250,000 fish per cage.

“Anticipating a fish kill, the operators would double the number of stocks in a cage,” explains freshwater biologist Dr. Lourdes Castillo. But she says that many of the fish die precisely because they were overstocked.

The operators also believe that figuring out how much to feed the fish is a matter of common sense. “You just have to estimate the feeds and wait until the fish eat them,” says Llona.

Feeds and feces lead to fish kills

Experts say, however, that at least 40 percent of the feeds end up at the lake bottom along with fish feces. Both add to the nutrients in the lake that stimulate excessive plant growth, otherwise known as algal blooms. These in turn reduce dissolved oxygen in the water, causing other organisms, including fish, to die.

TAAL Lake’s murky and foul-smelling waters have started to turn off ecotourists. [photo courtesy of Balikas]

“We have repeatedly given them seminars and trainings, but they continue with their practice,” complains Leah Villanueva, chief of BFAR’s Inland Fisheries Research Station in Tanauan City. “We can only offer technical assistance.”

BFAR clarifies that pre-fish cage Taal Lake was no stranger to fish kills, which were then usually caused indirectly by a seasonal overturn with sulfur upswelling. Sulfur is an element usually present in volcanic waters like Taal Lake. But BFAR also says that the fish kills then were not as frequent as they are today, and not as massive. It adds that since the fish cage industry peaked in 1998, fish kills have occurred in Taal Lake annually, both in fish cages and open waters.

Wind energy such as the southwest monsoon stirs up the lake’s waters and spreads the nutrients and other pollutants that later lead to ecological disasters like fish kills, experts explain.

But fisher Leo Aranel, who is chairperson of Aligtagtag town’s Municipal Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council (MFARMC), says he knows exactly where the major blame lies: “The problem here is that the municipal governments keep on accepting fish cage applications as long as there are spaces available in the lake.”

That may be partly because local governments earn from issuing fish cage permits. Talisay, for one, imposes a P2 lake-use fee per square meter of fish cage while Mataas na Kahoy town charges a yearly lake-use fee of P400 per fish cage.

Politics over pollution

The town of San Nicolas collects an annual P5 lake-use fee per square meter of fish cage. It also imposes a P40 payment for the mayor’s permit, P260 for business tax, and P25 for a plate number to operate a fish cage.

Yet another fisher, Eufemio Lubi, says, “They are always thinking of their political career, that the people might not vote for them (if they dismantle the cages) and somebody would get mad at them.”

“That’s why the lake is getting polluted,” fumes Lubi, who believes fish farming is to blame for the strange rusty color of the lake during summer months. “If they aren’t always thinking of their political career, we wouldn’t have this many fish cages.”

Once the lake turns an orange-red color, experts say, that indicates algal bloom. Yet they say that in the case of Taal Lake, the problem is not necessarily the number of fish cages, but in the practices of overstocking and overfeeding.

“We cannot control the natural processes (like wind) which spread the pollutants in the lake,” says BFAR aquaculturist Maurita Rosana. “But by following the recommended cage stocking density and feeding practices (in fish cage operations), we could reduce the number of nutrients that trigger pollutants in the lake.”

The official number of fish cages in Taal Lake — 6,796 — last year does overshoot the 6,000 recommended by fisheries experts for it, as does BFAR’s latest count of 9,188. But local government insiders and observers alike note that the area the cages occupy is still well under the legal limit set by the Philippine Fisheries Code.

The Code says that to prevent the quality of the country’s lakes from deteriorating, fish cages should occupy at most only 10 percent of the total lake area. According to BFAR Calabarzon Director Rosa Macas, fish cages occupy 500 hectares or two percent of Taal Lake.

Then again, the limit does not really apply to Taal Lake since the Code exempts lakes declared as protected areas from the definition of municipal waters.

In March 2007, the Taal Volcano Protected Landscape (TVPL)-PAMB finally approved a Unified Rules and Regulations for Fisheries (URRF) that limits the number of fish cages in the lake to 6,000 and within designated fish-cage zones.

The URRF also specifies areas as fish sanctuaries for native fishes to breed, regulates the use of fishing gear, and enforces other rules relative to Taal Lake’s biodiversity conservation.

But Environment Secretary Lito Atienza has refused to sign it unless it says there would be no fish cages in Taal Lake after a phase-out period.

Small fry vs. big fish

Local officials counter that they need to protect the livelihood of the locals who engage in fish-cage operations. Mataas na Kahoy Mayor Danilo Sombrano, whose town has the least number of fish cages in Taal Lake at 72, says they cannot just dismantle the fish farms without first thinking of other work opportunities for the operators. “We have to give them an alternative job, preferably (in) tourism,” he says.

This is even as small fishers say the fish cages are not only helping pollute the lake, but are also robbing them of their means to make a living. According to the Kilusan ng Maliliit na mga Mangingisda sa Lawa ng Taal, there are about 3,000 municipal fishers at Taal Lake.

Aranel says the fish cages have destroyed their traditional fishing grounds and narrowed their boats’ navigational lanes. Armed cage guards also suspect small fishers of stealing the tilapia grown by the fish farmers, he says. According to Aranel, the guards are even ready to shoot them if they go too near the cages.

Lubi seconds this, saying, “When we go out to fish, we now have to turn off our boat engines so that the waves won’t bring us near the cages.”

Aranel points out as well that half of what the local operators earn go to financiers, many of whom are outsiders. Fish cage caretaker Llona, for instance, actually earns P200,000 per harvest, but he turns over 50 percent of that to his financier, whom he declines to name.

It takes around P500,000 to operate a single 100-square-meter fish cage (the standard size) these days. Thus, even though the Philippine Fisheries Code and local ordinances give local residents preferential rights to own a fish cage, many of them end up only as caretakers of the wealthy and politically connected.

PAMB Executive Committee Member and Poblacion Barangay Captain Manuel Matienzo, for example, is known to own some 70 fish cages. In Laurel, giant feedmills Welgro Philippines, Sahara Corp., and Tower Feeds have operated fish cages, exceeding the town’s five-cage limit. Sahara also had 243 cages in Talisay in 2006.

Outside financiers apparently registered their fish cages under the names of local residents, a practice that seemed to be tolerated and even encouraged by some lake municipalities. Admits San Nicolas Mayor Epifanio Sandoval, whose town has around 1,187 cages: “We allowed them provided they would hire our local residents as feeders and caretakers.”

But he also says, “What happened…in the past was that those who wanted to build cages would do so without the knowledge of the PAMB, the barangay, or the local government units concerned.”

There have been instances as well when fish cages were built first before its owners bothered to secure permits from the municipal government concerned.

All these have only led many lakeside residents and environmentalists alike to believe the local governments around the lake cannot be entrusted to take care of it.

In late January 2005, in fact, 10 Batangas mayors signed a covenant vowing to protect Taal Lake. Yet a massive fish kill later struck at the end of the year, damaging around 3,714.69 metric tons of tilapia.

Poorly-enforced ordinances

In the absence of a lake-wide set of rules and regulations, local governments had also tried to craft their own ordinances on fish cages. But these were often poorly enforced.

Talisay, for example, has Municipal Ordinance 01-96 establishing a fish-cage belt that is well outside the lake waters of the Taal Volcano Island. Yet today there are nearly 700 fish cages in these waters.

Officials there say then Batangas Governor Hermilando Mandanas had an internal arrangement with the now-defunct Presidential Commission on Tagaytay-Taal to allow people to put up cages there. This was even though the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology had declared it a permanent danger zone due to the active Taal Volcano.

For all these, Mataas na Kahoy Mayor Sombrano, who is a member of the PAMB executive committee, says, “The mayors are in full control of the cages and we are really protecting the lake.”

He may have a hard time convincing Lubi, though. The Mataas na Kahoy fisher says he and other fisherfolk have long wanted to remove the abandoned cages in the town’s part of the lake. He says these cages now number some 500. But according to Lubi, the local government has yet to provide the funds to their MFARMC for the clean-up operation.

Ironically, Sombrano may not even have to convince Vicente Llona that fish cages have not been good for Taal Lake. The fish cage caretaker says the business has proved highly beneficial to him and other operators. He says he has yet to meet anyone who went into fish cages and failed to prosper. He himself has been able to buy home appliances such as a television, a refrigerator, and a DVD player from what he makes taking care of the fish. He now plans to buy a service vehicle to make it easier for him to deliver his tilapia.

Yet Llona says he is willing to give up fish farming because he knows fish cage operations like his have damaged Taal Lake. He says he has even seen operators dumping plastic bags and dead fish into the lake, while others defecate straight into the waters.

“Even if this has been my livelihood, it’s destructive,” says Llona. “It would be painful for us to lose it, but we can’t insist on continuing if it’s destructive. Should they ask us to go…we request that we be given enough time to recoup our investments.”