The Philippine Star

We start today’s column with a plea for help by a small fish cage owner in Laguna de Bay who fears that the pronouncements of President Duterte to rehabilitate the country’s largest lake during his inaugural address last year has turned into a nightmare for him and his colleagues.

The President had then instructed newly chosen Environment Secretary Gina Lopez during his speech to find a solution to the continuing siltation of the lake, a major source of milkfish for residents of Metro Manila and nearby provinces.

Recently, Lopez bared plans to dismantle all the fish pens in the lake, and transform it into an ecotourism zone. A subsequent notice was issued to fish pen and cage owners to start removing their nets, posts, and all other materials used for their operations, otherwise these would be confiscated during the demolition scheduled later this month.

Our letter sender, who requested anonymity, pretty much represents what other law-abiding small fish pen and cage owners operating in the lake feel. Here’s what he wrote:

Forgotten fishing industry

“I read your column today about mining investors affected by the mining closure. So much attention has been given on the mining that the fishing industry has been forgotten.

“I am an owner of a small fish cage for almost four years now, and the operation has been rough due to various factors like natural calamities, dishonest employees, and the quality of fingerlings that we bought. But I know this is part of the operation, and we'll just hope for a better harvest in the future.

“For three consecutive years, I [suffered] a loss in income, but this season is very optimistic – until it was ordered by the DENR Secretary to demolish any structure in the Laguna Lake area.

“As far as I can remember, the President wanted to close those big fishpen (with an area of 15 to 50 hectares) because it's larger to what was prescribed by the law. These big corporations profited for so long.

“But why [does] the crackdown of the fish pens include those small fish cages (with an area of one hectare or less) that have been given permits and are paying its yearly dues to the government.

Livelihoods not considered

“I can't understand why they don't consider first the livelihood of those workers who rely on their salaries from working in the fish cage, which in my case are two employees.

“They say there will an alternative source of livelihood but shouldn't it be done first before any demolition? Did they consider also the effect on the supply and prices if they will proceed with the demolition? Why is it only in Laguna Lake? How about in Batangas and Pangasinan?

“I thought they were promoting SMEs [small and medium enterprises]? We still have stocks in the fish cage but were being forced to harvest even if it is still small (9 to 12 pieces per kilo). How can we recover from our investments?

“There were meetings done by the local fish pen and fish cage operators recently, but only the owners of the big fish pens were included in the closed-door meeting. The representatives of small fish cages were asked to stay outside the meeting room.

Fair competition and treatment

“It's very clear that we small owners are being used by the bigger businessmen to get the sympathy of the government while keeping us out of the discussion.

“We just want fair competition and fair treatment. We are here because we want to help while doing small business. Shutting us down is too much a burden for the small entrepreneurs. We just wanted to recover from our losses, and we needed more time for our stocks to grow.

“We just want to air our side. May I please request not to mention my name if ever for security purposes.”

Laguna Lake’s importance

Many of our fish cage and pen owners in the country are small businessmen who have sunk in hard-earned money to be able to establish a modest source of income. Laguna Lake, because of its proximity to the huge population of Metro Manila, is a coveted ground for growing fish in cages and pens.

Over the years, as the area of fish growing operations grew to beyond the lake’s maximum “safe” carrying capacity of 15,000 hectares (or about 10 to 15 percent of the 90,000 total acreage of the lake), and with the presence of oversized fish pens in clear violation of the law, operational yields dropped to much less profitable levels.

Nonetheless, Laguna Lake’s fish pens and cages continue to be a major source of cultured fish for millions for Filipinos. It’s significance to the local economy, including the jobs created to sustain the fish-growing operations, cannot be taken lightly.

Once again, like in the case of our mining companies that had been unceremoniously shut down, fish cage owners – like our letter-sender – have rights that need to be upheld, especially since they had been given permits by the government and had complied with all the necessary requirements to operate.

But clearly, those oversized fish pens that were constructed in clear violation of the law must go. Furthermore, government officials who most probably profited by approving these oversized illegal fish pens should be prosecuted.

Grandiose idea

Our DENR Secretary may have grandiose ideas of showcasing a “healthier” Laguna Lake to the world, but this should not be at the expense of rights being trampled on and jobs being lost, even in the name of Mother Earth and the environment.

More importantly, it must not disrupt a system that effectively delivers a cheap source of food for families living in Metro Manila and surrounding provinces.

If the “health” of Laguna de Bay is a problem, let’s explore better methods that will ensure that the lake’s long-term sustainability is achieved while continuing to provide an abundant and relatively cheap source of cultured fish to the communities that rely on it.

No question about it: I’d like to see a Laguna Lake teeming with fish and aquatic life, and with clear and flowing waters; but such a picturesque and romantic vision should not be the be-all and end-all.

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Valero Street, SalcedoVillage, 1227 MakatiCity. Or e-mail me at reydgamboa@yahoo.com. For a compilation of previous articles, visit http://www.bizlinksphilippines.net/.