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The Online Magazine for Sustainable Seas
March, 2001 Vol.4 No. 3

Live fish trade threatens tourism in El Nido, Palawan

By Yasmin D. Arquiza, Bandillo ng Palawan News Service





EL NIDO, Palawan -- Local investors and government officials are at odds over the entry of traders in live food fish, an industry that is often linked with the illegal use of sodium cyanide and destruction of coral reefs, in this picturesque tourist haven.

In a public hearing held last Feb. 24, supporters of the trade insisted that they only use the environment-friendly hook-and-line method in catching groupers, but opponents said it would lead to overfishing in the already degraded reefs of this popular tourist destination.

Around 50 supporters of besieged Mayor Edna Lim, who granted a permit to a live fish trader last January, attended the hearing and cheered every time live fish proponents spoke.

Along with neighboring Taytay municipality, El Nido was proclaimed a Managed Resource Protected Area in October 1998. The reserve covers 90,321 hectares of forest and marine habitats that harbor endangered species such as hawksbill turtles and the dugong.

"If you allow live fish trade in El Nido, the resorts here should consider closing down in five to ten years," said Joselito Alisuag, chairman of the Protected Area Management Board that oversees the nature reserve.
He cited the experience of Coron town, center of the live fish trade in northern Palawan, where live coral cover dropped to zero when the industry flourished in the last decade. Many resorts in Coron can now only offer wreck diving as coral reefs in the Calamianes island group have suffered much damage.

Aside from its scenic rocky isles and white sand beaches, El Nido relies on its abundant marine life to attract tourists. Coral bleaching, or dying out of reefs due to extremely warm waters, during the El Niño phenomenon in the last two years has already damaged much of El Nido’s extensive coral reefs.

In a meeting following the public hearing, the Management Board affirmed its resolution last Sept. 25 to ban the catching of coral-dwelling groupers locally known as the "suno" and "señorita" varieties, wrasse, and ornamental fish inside the protected area. However, they allowed limited catching of green groupers, lobster, and bangus fry.

Despite the restrictions, some local investors doubt the capability of local government agencies to patrol the area effectively due to lack of boats and personnel.

"Allowing live fish trade without strict regulations is a mockery of the law that made El Nido a protected area," local business woman Romilyn Maggay dela Cruz said.

The local Protected Area Office has been receiving funds from the European Union for the conservation of El Nido for the past five years, but the project is scheduled to end in March. So far, the Management Board has only raised P99,000 to continue its operations.

Five fish in two days
A live fish trader from Taytay has been making shipments using the plane of the upscale Ten Knots resort for about a year now, but the issue only became controversial in the last few months when an investor from Coron called Ko’s Aquamarine started operating in El Nido.

Last October, the company set up a storage plant in the coastal village of Corong-Corong and started catching and shipping live fish in violation of protected area regulations.

“There is no other livelihood in Palawan which can give fishermen a better life than the live fish trade,” said Pedro Timbancaya, local manager of Ko’s Aquamarine.

He said fishermen can get up to P1,200 for every kilogram of live red groupers, compared to P80 per kilo for fresh (but dead) fish of the same species. The live fish are brought to expensive Chinese restaurants in Manila and abroad, where they can fetch up to P5,000 per kilo in Hong Kong, according to Alisuag.

Due to the demand for the luxury food fish and the prospect of quick profits, many fishermen have resorted to the use of sodium cyanide to stun the fish near coral reefs, making them easier to catch. The poisonous substance kills coral reefs, creating underwater graveyards devoid of fish and other marine life. The practice has decimated reefs in many parts of Palawan where the live fish trade was introduced.

El Nido Protected Area Superintendent Loreto Rodriguez reported the violations of Ko’s Aquamarine to Alisuag, who threatened to cancel the company’s accreditation for live fish trading in Coron if they continued to operate in El Nido despite lack of permits.

Timbancaya reasoned out that the company was merely training local fishers and conducting demonstrations of their techniques while waiting for their permits to be granted.

To prove that the company was not using sodium cyanide, he asked a group of live fish catchers to accompany a media group out to sea and test their hook-and-line method. The group traveled an hour by boat to reach a coral reef 20 fathoms deep, where five fishers tried to catch groupers with fish bait tied around a fist-sized stone that served as a sinker.

Because of the depth of the reef, boat owner Cesar Diago said illegal fishers who use cyanide often have to use compressors that make it possible for them to breathe underwater. This is why many municipalities in Palawan, including El Nido, have banned compressor-aided fishing in their waters.

After an hour, the fishers only managed to catch one 250-gram red grouper, which is not among the target species in the live fish trade. Diago said his catchers often average five good-size, or about one kilo each, of fish in two days of fishing. One-third of the revenues go to the boat owner while the catchers split the expenses and remaining amount.

Normally, the fishers travel up to three hours towards the deep sea, near the oil drilling areas, to catch live fish, Diago said. He believes the trade will not pose any conflict to tourism as the coral reefs in areas where their target species are found average a depth of 20 to 40 fathoms, beyond the range of most recreational divers.

Most of the coral reefs where they operate are also outside the waters of the protected area, Diago says.

Three sacks of stones a day
During the public hearing, community organizer Rolando Olano of the environmental group Haribon-Palawan asked the live fish catchers how many sacks of stones they use during a normal operation. The fishers said they bring about three sacks a day on the average.

At this rate, Olano said substantial damage is done to the reefs from the dumping of stones. He also questioned how fishers can sustain the trade, especially with catchers flocking to El Nido from Coron and other parts of Palawan where there are no more fish to catch.

Very few fish, mostly small ones, were seen during a brief snorkel survey in a popular coral reef in El Nido over the weekend, indicating that the area is overfished.

The record of shipments from the private El Nido airstrip last November alone showed that between 40 to 280 kilos of live fish, mostly redgroupers, are transported to Manila daily from traders in Taytay.

In many coastal towns with a burgeoning live fish industry, most coral reefs no longer have target species such as groupers and wrasse. The prospect of easy money often drives fishers to exploit even near-shore areas for live fish instead of going out to deeper waters.

Even then, very few live fish catchers are able to improve their lives.After earning a thousand pesos in two days, most fishers spend their earnings on drinking binges, then go back to the sea to catch more fish, Diago says. His story indicates that the live fish industry cycle breeds poverty and not

Mayor Lim has vowed to crack down on illegal fishers, but admits that her government does not have regular patrols that can protect El Nido’s municipal waters.

Some residents suggest the organization of fishers’ cooperatives and setting up of hatcheries so that target species do not have to be caught from the wild. One drawback is that most hatcheries only breed green groupers, which is half the price of red groupers.

“We keep harvesting from nature, but if we have hatcheries, we can say to God that we also helped nurture and make the fish grow,” parish priest Msgr. Edgardo Juanich said.




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