Vanishing food sources! Longing for the days when galunggong and rice are aplenty and affordable  photo Pinterest
Food and Lifestyle

Vanishing food sources! Longing for the days when galunggong and rice are aplenty and affordable

Oct 27, 2021, 6:03 AM
Alfredo P. Hernandez

Alfredo P. Hernandez


TIME WAS WHEN fish were aplenty and cheap, and rice was in abundance, and likewise cheap.

Thus, hunger was unheard of in our little, laid-back coastal town of Mambulao, Camarines Norte, in the Bicol region. It was circa the 1950s-1960s and I had known how to make a living to chip into the growing needs of our small household.

Having grown in a coastal town where fish was being offloaded onto our shore from “basnig” (lift-net outrigger boats) every morning almost seven days a week especially during summer months from February to May, I became familiar with some of the most common table fish that could be found in every household in our barrio called Parang.

I knew what the family was having for “ulam” during a meal, whether it was breakfast, lunch, or supper. In short, rice, then very cheap, was conveniently paired, as always, with fish. And that would be galunggong (round scads) cooked in variations of Bicolano culinary ingenuity.

With our house just seven hundred meters away from the shore where these migrant fishing boats docked shortly after the sun had risen, I would readily rush to the seaside to meet the first boats that would land ashore, usually heavy with a catch – the famous galunggong (round scads) and something more.

From the shore, we would know a basnig which was still a kilometer away if it had a good catch: it always looked like only a third of its hull was above the water and would only show its four to six poles flying identification banners and flags.

And as it neared the shore, the people lined along the edge of the bay water would applaud, as if to welcome it as well as its catch for the taking later.

But of course, I was not satisfied with just waiting for the enormous baskets (tiklis or banyera) of catch to be offloaded by the fishing crew and dumped into the sand just next to the water that was constantly lapping up the beach.

I would climb onto the boat myself and go straight down in the hull's belly where its huge diesel engine sat, but still humming mutely.

I knew there were more fish strewn all over the place, which the crew wouldn’t bother about. This used to be my secret fishing ground and my “catch” was plenty, as always.

But I was not alone in this enterprise. Other kids like me were eager to make a haul right from the huge baskets that were piled on top of each other on the boat’s wide deck, ready to be hauled down to the shore along with the other catch, while awaiting “viajeros” in a convoy of several trucks to take them to the provincial capital of Daet or Manila.

On a lucky day of the week, there would be at least 50 basnigs calling on our shore and they would pile up along the entire length of the beach.

So you could just imagine the excitement of the people from my barrio, which is just a kilometer away from the poblacion but separated by a small river over which a meter-wide wooden bridge spanned.

By the time the sun was angled in the sky at about 9 am, most of those who came to the beach early morning would have gone home; they would now gut and scale the fish they either bought at almost giveaway prices or just plucked them from the fish baskets as they were being hauled down the boat, over which the fishing crews did not bother or complained about.

With each of the basnig heavily laden with catch, the crew did not mind parting with their fish, which had become a practice over the years.

They were all strangers in our place and had no reason to complain. After all, they all had been from far away towns in Bicol and had chosen our beach as a strategic landing site for their catch; it was near the highway leading to Manila through which the viajeros could conveniently transport their goods.

With this scenario going on day in day out, and with fish piling up at home – either fry-roasted or sun-dried as “da-ing” or “tuyo”, I grew sick and tired having it three times a day during meals.

I was dying for meat even only once a week – especially on a Sunday – just to break the monotony in my taste buds, courtesy of what mother would serve during meals.

BUT THOSE were the days and those days of plenty were long gone. Fish catches had dwindled over the last seven decades because of overfishing, unsustainable fishing methods, loss of rich fishing grounds along with the coral reefs, and high cost of commercial fishing operations triggered by rising prices of crude oil in the world market.

Today, the Filipino consumers no longer get sick or tired of eating galunggong as they don’t get to eat this fish as often as they used to years ago; instead, they’re sick and tired about how this poor man’s fish – which accounts for some 60 percent of the national protein consumption and the cheapest source of protein – has been priced as if it was gold and became too costly for most households across the country.

Just consider this: In a 2001 survey conducted by Third World Network Features, the retail price of galunggong at wet markets around Metro Manila ranged from 15-17 pesos per kilo.

These days, its prevailing retail price in wet markets ranges from 180 pesos to 200 pesos, according to the September 2021 survey conducted by the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS).

As millions of ordinary households used to say: it’s all right not to have fish for “ulam” as long as there’s rice. “Patis” (fish sauce) or “toyo” (soy sauce), “tuyo” (dried fish), or even just plain rock salt or iodized salt would be more than enough to go with rice. As long as there’s rice.

Well, rice has likewise become a very expensive commodity nowadays and its prices soared between 40 pesos and 60.

And with Vietnam and Thailand – two major exporters of rice to the Philippines – deciding to cut down on their exports to rice-short countries for their food security, the short supply of rice in the world market would surely push the price of the grain per metric ton to US$400 to US$411 per metric ton.

Looking at the BAS figures, galunggong has gone more expensive than the cultured bangus and tilapia, which both currently sell from 130 pesos to 160 pesos a kilo.

And who would bother to have alumahan for 300 pesos a kilo if you could only bring home four to five pieces of it at medium size?

Industry sources said the high cost of fuel entailed by operating deep-sea fishing boats catching round scads or galunggong has contributed substantially to the cost of operations, especially for the locally operated fishing vessels.

Deep-sea foreign-owned fishing vessels chasing the same fish species across our waters – particularly those coming from Taiwan and China – can unload their catch in the Philippines at a lower cost because they are being heavily subsidized by their respective governments.

Because of this, big-scale commercial fish traders would usually prefer the catch by foreign vessels as they can make more profits than those sourced from local operators.

With the presence of both foreign-operated and locally operated fishing vessels in deep-sea waters, the country’s coastal fishing population is the biggest loser.

Statistics showed that over 60 percent of the country’s 109 million people live in coastal areas and almost depend on fishing as a major source of livelihood.

With the rocketing price of fuel to operate both deep-sea fishing vessels and motorized coastal fishing boats, fish production has dwindled drastically.

Over the years, many coastal fishermen have been experiencing dwindling catch from the usual average of 20kg per outing per operator to only 2kg.

Blame this to the intrusion by big commercial operators into municipal fishing waters in which small fishermen operated up to the extent that the whole fishing grounds were rendered almost depleted.

This had forced small fishermen to venture further out into the sea in search of bigger catch, but increased their operating cost as they have to burn more diesel fuel.

The result was that their income per kilo of catch had drastically declined.

A group of fishermen called Pamalakaya told the Third World Network Features that a certain provision in RA 8550, known as The Philippine Fisheries Code, has facilitated the entry of commercial fishing boats into municipal grounds that should have been reserved for small fishermen.

The group said that although RA 8550 forbids commercial fishing in municipal waters with a depth of fewer than seven fathoms (42 feet), it does not specifically forbid commercial operations in waters greater than seven fathoms even if these fall within the 10.1 to 15- kilometer distance from the shoreline prescribed by law.

Through these deceptive provisions, the territory of deep-sea fishing vessels has been expanded to include 96.3 percent of territorial waters in the Philippines.

According to USAID, the Philippines is experiencing a tremendous dilemma in the developing world. Although in the marine world’s highest diversity of coral reefs, the country’s fishing industry finds its coastal fishers battling poverty, its fisheries in decline, and habitat destruction resulting from unsustainable fishing practices.

Maintaining profitable fishery harvests amidst areas where over 70 percent of the coastal fishing grounds are reported to be over-exploited is daunting.

USAID’s Fisheries Improved for Sustainable Harvest (FISH) project is helping fishers in the Philippines by assigning an independent team to assess the current fishing industry challenges and to recommend good fisheries management practices.

The project sites are in four strategic fishing grounds that are important biodiversity conservation areas — the Danajon bank in Bohol, the Calamianes Islands in Palawan, the northern coastal bays areas of Surigao del Sur, and the areas around Bongao, Tawi-Tawi.

Just like the rice program, which could fail, and thus create a shortage just like what the country is experiencing now, fish production is in a critical state because of a lot of pressure from the soaring costs of operating fishing boats.

With this, there’s always a possibility of dwindling fish catch developing into a national crisis soon. Echoing the warning from USAID, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (FBAR) has cited the continued environmental degradation of Philippine waters as a major constraint on fish production.

But we have enough fish species – at least six important ones – that could continuously provide the much-needed protein to the country’s growing population.

We have the sardines, round scads (galunggong), frigate tuna, anchovies, milkfish, and tilapia. It has been proven over the years that we can produce 100,000MT from each of these six important species annually and provide the people with the needed protein sufficiently.

Every year, the volume of galunggong (round scads) landed continued to top the 10 other fish species. In 2005 alone, commercial catch of this species hit 214,963.24MT, accounting for 19 percent of the overall catch of 1.134 million MT for that year.

Our waters are also rich in Indian mackerel, skipjack, and yellowfin tuna, sea bass, red snapper, mullet, kawakawa, squid, and prawn.

All these could be sourced from principal commercial fishing grounds off Palawan, north of Panay and Negros and to the south and west of Mindanao, while subsistence fishing in coastal areas is conducted throughout the archipelago.

Fish ponds, chiefly for the cultivation of bangus or milkfish, are principally in the swampy coastal areas of western Panay and around Manila Bay.

So, there’s no reason the country should experience fish shortage just as we experience rice shortage now.

The first thing to do is for the government to focus on the plight of small, coastal fishermen by breaking up the entire production system which is right now controlled by big traders and commercial fishermen, not to mention those operating from countries like Taiwan and China.

After all, the coastal fishermen are the backbone of our national fishing network; they are the ones sustaining supplies for household consumption, the ones that go to the table of ordinary Filipino families.

Still far from being a sunset industry, the country’s coastal fishing sector needed much development push, starting with the subsistence fishermen.

One step towards the right direction is by providing them the means to own their gears like motorized banca and other tools to boost productivity, along with post-harvest technology ranging from refrigerated storage facilities to ice-making facilities.

More important is that they should reset their minds to using sustainable fishing methods with help from agencies like USAID.

The government could also subsidize fuel for their motorized banca. There had been similar fishery programs in the past, but it seemed they failed for one reason or the other.

This time, they need a second wind to set them off sailing again towards new fishing grounds with better prospects.

There’s a need to enliven the coastal fishery programs for the sake of about two million small fishers who live along the country’s over 17,000 kilometer-long shoreline. Such programs need a big boost from no less than the government, just like invigorating the rice scheme by introducing hybrid rice seeds that deliver a much higher yield per hectare along with much-needed financial help from subsidized seeds, irrigation water, fertilizers, and other farm inputs.

If the Duterte government or the one to take over in 2022 could earmark billions to boost rice production to avert full-blown grain shortage next year, the same thing should also be done for the coastal fishermen, because they can assure us of self-sufficiency in fish protein as they have been doing over the years.

The big commercial fishermen can take care of themselves. But the government should stringently enforce the spirit of the Philippine Fisheries Code to make them toe the line for protecting the small fishermen across the country.

With the fast increasing population (110 million by year-end), the nation needs to improve its capacity to provide for the people’s food requirement, particularly cheap fish protein – and it’s the subsistence coastal fish folks who could do this job, and help themselves attain self-sufficiency.

This is the reality: Our number is nearing the 110-million mark.

Every day, food prices are increasing and that food supply is bound to become inadequate, eventually. If the government cannot make the right moves to avert any food crisis, as what is becoming clear now, the coastal fishing industry could become the next crisis in the making.

We should never forget that when things get tough, the most basic staples – rice and fish – would be the only two lifesavers that the people from up north to down south could grab on for survival. I do not doubt this.

By the way, grilled G-G, anyone? It goes great with beer!

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