EB MAGALONA, Negros Occidental ? Barangay Tomongtong in EB Magalona town in Negros Occidental has long been known for its bounty of blue crabs, but its residents are now feeling the pinch.
The lucrative incomes they had been enjoying are declining because of the low supply of blue crabs (Portunus pelagicus), locally known as ?kasag,? due to over-harvesting and the rising price of fuel for fishing boats, said Barangay Chair Rolly Bronda. Eighty percent of the 1,717 villagers rely on the highly priced crustaceans for livelihood, he said.
Barangay councilor Felipe Deguira Jr. said his average catch of 10 kilos a day had dropped to three kilos. That left him with about P250 earnings a day after gasoline and other expenses were deducted, he said.
But sometimes, he said, he would catch 20 to 30 kilos.
Dalia Gaco, 48, who has been in the blue crab business for 18 years, said companies exporting crab meat were buying her catch at P165 per kilo.
From the catchers, the crabs are brought to the plants where their meat is picked out and packed for shipment, mostly to Cebu, for canning and export, according to Mayor David Lacson.
EB Magalona has six blue crab processing plants, he said. One of them, Hibionada Aqua Venture, employs 150 people at peak production and produces 600-700 kilos of crabmeat a day, its owner, Ronaldo Hibionada, said. The crab meat is shipped to Cebu and sold to exporters for the US market at P900 to P1,000 a kilo.
But while the plants have provided jobs to many villagers, Lacson said this ? along with their earnings ? could be lost if they do not protect their resource.
Through the years, the government has conducted seminars to teach the residents how to be discriminating in their catch to prevent the depletion of the blue crabs, according to Gaco.
Fishermen were educated on the need to keep the crustaceans propagating by allowing the return to sea of juveniles or of gravid crabs (egg-bearing crabs) that had not yet spawned, said Arsenio Palma, the municipal fishery officer.
But since the opening of the vast export market for crabmeat, more people have plunged into the business, including fishing families from the neighboring areas of EB Magalona who have not gone through crab conservation seminars.
The blue crabs that are abundant in Tomongtong are particularly coveted because they are tastier than other crabs, Palma said. Their habitat in the coastal village is soft and muddy with a lot of algae, he said.
To fully improve the habitat of the crabs and the burger shells and brown mussels they feed on, the villagers have stepped up mangrove reforestation, said Andrito Malunes, a former village chief of Tomongtong.
Also, the mangroves prevented the further erosion of the coastal land that was slowly being eaten up by the sea.
While the name of Tomongtong is synonymous with blue crabs, EB Magalona?s shoreline from Barangays Latasan to Pasil has blue crabs, too, according to Lacson.
To ensure that the creatures will continue to thrive, Lacson proposes the establishment of a 19-square-kilometer sanctuary for gravid crabs or ?bukakahan? from Latasan to Pasil that will be off-limits to fishermen for five to 10 years.
A ban will allow undisturbed spawning and ensure the propagation of blue crabs, he said.
?We will explain the benefits of a crab sanctuary to marginal fishermen, provide (them with) alternative livelihoods and hold hearings on the matter,? Lacson said.
He said the municipal government was enforcing two ordinances prohibiting and penalizing the catching of gravid crabs and juveniles or crablets.
A Provincial Blue Crab Fishery Ordinance is also in place to regulate the catching, selling, buying and processing of gravid blue crabs and crablets. Fishers are not allowed to catch and sell gravid blue crabs and blue crabs that have not reached the average size of maturity, or crabs with carapaces of below 11 centimeters.
Under the ordinance, fishers cannot use gill nets to catch the crabs with stretched mesh size of less than 12 cm, and to engage in blue crab fishery without licenses from the municipal government.
The measure was adopted to ensure continuity of an industry that is vital to the economy of the province.
Blue crab is the sixth most important fishery export in the country, records from the Negros Occidental provincial fishery office showed. Western Visayas, particularly the Visayan Sea and the Guimaras Strait, is the highest producer of blue crabs, according to the Blue Crab Fishery Ordinance.
Former EB Magalona Mayor Alfonso Gamboa said the proposed crab sanctuary was welcome news.
?The establishment of a sanctuary, backed up by scientific data, will preserve the breeding stock. We have zoned our coastline and it is in our municipal fisheries code,? said Gamboa, a staunch environmental advocate.
?Strict enforcement and political will is needed. Mangrove preservation and propagation is critical,? he said.
Gamboa also said that in order to preserve the crabs, restaurants should remove crablets from their menus. ?That is the first and crucial step,? he said.
The media can help by informing people that those serving crablets are not environment-friendly and must not be patronized, Gamboa said.