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
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
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 Nidos extensive
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 Kos 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 Kos 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 Kos Aquamarine to Alisuag, who threatened to cancel the companys
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
Mayor Lim has vowed to crack down on illegal fishers, but admits that
her government does not have regular patrols that can protect El Nidos
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.