MANILA, Philippines—Despite assurances of safety from authorities and merchants, consumers in Batangas province still won’t touch even plump, fresh-looking fish sold in the local wet markets, days after patches of their famous freshwater lake “turned white” because of a recent massive fishkill.
Residents of Talisay town, whose economy depends heavily on Taal Lake’s bounty, remained cautious even as officials sent out word that the tons of rotting milkfish (bangus) and other affected varieties were already being disposed of by the truckload.
“You know how people are. They think the fish affected by the fishkill are still being sold,” Mayor Zenaida Mendoza said.
On Monday, she noted sales taking a dive at the seafood row of the Talisay public market and expected a 50-percent drop in the coming days.
“This would affect much of the town’s income. More than half of our population depends on fishing for livelihood,” Mendoza told the Inquirer.
The fishkill has affected the towns of Talisay, San Nicolas, Angono, Laurel and Balite, as well as Tanauan City.
Blamed on the onset of the rainy season, particularly the sudden drop in the lake water’s oxygen level, the fishkill wiped out an estimated 800 metric tons of mostly milkfish species in Taal Lake on Friday.
Some 400 MT of milkfish died in Talisay alone in 84 out of about 1,000 fish pens. An additional 400 tons of milkfish have died in the other towns.
Dead milkfish floated inside the bamboo poles and nets surrounding each stricken fish pen, which occupies an area about half the size of a basketball court.
Damage has been estimated at P33 million, Mendoza told The Associated Press.
“Many were sad and devastated because they invested a lot in these fish cages,” the mayor said.
“But buyers should not be (scared). For one, they would know if the fish is already spoiled,” she said. ‘’The gills of a fresh catch should be red.”
The mayor stressed that other cages, mostly for tilapia, were spared from the fishkill.
Mendoza announced that a state of calamity had been declared in Barangay Sampaloc, the hardest-hit area under her jurisdiction.
Senior Insp. Manuel Maligaya, Talisay police chief, said he was under a “strict directive” from the government to make sure trucks transporting fish products to the market would carry only fresh catch.
“I don’t think anyone would try selling spoiled fish because it would really be smelling bad by now,” Maligaya said.
About 300 tons of dead fish have been buried in an upland area in Sampaloc. Officials were still looking for more landowners who would allow the remaining fish to be disposed of in their properties.
Maurita Rosana of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) office in the Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon) region said Taal’s water remained unfavorable to aquatic life—a sign that the fishkill may continue for a week.
Depleted oxygen level
As of Monday, Rosana said, the oxygen level remained depleted at 3.71 parts per million (ppm), below the normal level of 6 ppm. The readings went as low as 3.42 ppm on Friday.
The water was still “hazy” with transparency measured at 1.7 meters from the normal level of 3.6 meters. Temperature was at 31.7 degrees Celsius, warmer than the “favorable” range of 28 to 29 degrees.
“What caused the fishkill was the combination of unfavorable weather conditions, an overturn, and the deteriorating water quality of the Taal Lake,” Rosana said.
An overturn occurs when surface water gets pushed down and the bottom water, which carries pollutants, rises to the surface, resulting in oxygen depletion.
The BFAR has advised fish cage owners to conduct an “emergency harvest” of surviving fish before they get affected by the phenomenon.
Not related to volcano
Volcanologists said the fishkill was not related to the recent activity of Taal Volcano, which lies in the middle of the lake and has been rumbling for more than a month. Taal is among the deadliest of the country’s 23 active volcanoes.
On Monday, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) said Taal registered 115 earthquakes over the last 24 hours, the highest number of tremors recorded in a day since the area was placed under Alert Level 2 in April.
Phivolcs said residents around the volcano heard rumbling sounds and felt movements measuring up to intensity 4 last weekend, but no physical changes on the ground were reported.
The latest readings reflect “a remarkable increase” and a sharp jump from the average of 10 mild quakes daily since Alert Level 2 took effect on April 9, said Jaime Sincioco, officer in charge of the Phivolcs Volcano Monitoring and Eruption Prediction Division.
“If this (high number of volcanic quakes) is sustained, it could eventually lead to an eruption,” Sincioco said.
Phivolcs spokesperson and research specialist July Sabit said the “earthquake swarm” —a sign of magma and gases pushing up to the volcano’s surface—indicated that Taal would continue to be restive in the months to come.
Of the 115 tremors, 12 were felt at intensity 1-4 by residents of the towns of Pira-piraso, Alas-as and Calauit, which are all located around Volcano Island. Except for one which occurred 8:32 p.m. of May 29, the quakes were recorded in the early hours of Sunday.
But Sabit said it was still too early to raise the alert level, noting that 115 quakes in a day might sound a lot to ordinary observers but the frequency was still low by Taal standards.
In the early 1990s, Taal had an earthquake swarm of more than 1,500 tremors a day, Sabit recalled.
In its latest bulletin, Phivolcs noted a slight rise in the water temperature in the main crater lake, which could mean that magma continued to push up. Readings made on May 24 showed the water heating up to 32.8 degrees from 32.5 degrees.
Phivolcs advised the public that the main crater, Daang Kastila Trail, and Mount Tabaro on the island remained off-limits.
Allan Loza, resident volcanologist at the Taal Observatory based in Talisay, said the increased number of volcanic quakes should not cause a panic yet, but residents should be “doubly cautious.”
Island residents still refused to evacuate despite the increased volcanic activity, Mendoza reported.
Taal has had 33 eruptions on record since 1572, the last on Oct. 3, 1977. A series of major eruptions occurred from 1965 to 1970 and another from 1976 to 1977. With reports from Kristine L. Alave in Manila, AP and AFP