BOLINAO, Pangasinan, Philippines?The almost unbearable stench that greeted boat men sailing toward the Kakiputan Channel here served as a grim warning of what lay ahead.
Since last weekend, residents have been witnessing thousands of bangus (milkfish) and other marine life floating dead in the murky water.
It?s 2002 once again for this town and neighboring Anda, which now face a new fish kill disaster that imperils the local economy.
2002 was the year when the bangus industry was wiped out and losses were estimated to have reached P400 million. A fish kill of smaller proportion occurred in 2007.
The current scourge is far smaller in scale, although initial estimates of damage have been pegged at P50 million in Bolinao alone.
?It started on Saturday,? said Florante Garcia, chair of Bolinao?s fisheries and aquatic resources management council.
?It was neap tide on that day and water was brownish red in the morning. At noontime, it rained heavily so the salinity and temperature dropped,? Garcia said.
Neap tide represents the smallest level of rise and fall in tidal levels, which occur twice a year.
All, but a few, fish cages here have been abandoned, with the dead bangus sloshing in and out of them due to the current.
In the corners of the caretakers? huts lay bags of untouched commercial feeds. Hundreds of plastic bags full of dead fish have been thrown ashore.
On Sunday night, residents reported seeing milkfish floundering in the waters before dying. It turned worse at dawn on Monday when bangus in 65 cages in Barangays Catubig (Tara), Culangi and Culang were decimated. In Barangay Luna, bangus turned belly-up.
The plaque has spread to the villages of Siapar and Awag in Anda. From dawn to 7 a.m. on Wednesday, fishpond operators had to harvest bangus that were gasping for air.
Boatloads of bangus were dumped at the Picocobuan Fish Port in Bolinao to be sold for P10-P30 per kilogram.
Hundreds of residents have been buying the fish in bulk, but supply was too much for domestic consumption.
?We will bring the bangus to Malabon (Metro Manila),? said a local vendor there.
Garcia cited natural events, like a sudden temperature change and a shift in salinity, as possible reasons for this year?s fish kill, but authorities said man-made problems are more liable for the event.
Westley Rosario, research center chief of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) in Dagupan City, said too much nutrients in the water nurtured harmful algal blooms that reduced levels of dissolved oxygen.
On Wednesday noon, the dissolved oxygen level was measured at 1.7 parts per million (ppm), which was way below the ideal 4 ppm. Marine life cannot live off oxygen below 4 ppm.
Unconsumed commercial feed promotes the growth of algae.
?In short, the fish kill is caused mainly by pollution from the industry itself. It is really the same, oft-repeated cause and effect,? Rosario said.
A pen caretaker said it takes 2,000 sacks of feeds to produce 20,000 tons of bangus in one cage.
Brunner Carranza, municipal planning and development officer, said the 600 fish cages and pens in the town indicate the amount of feeds polluting the waters.
?Fishpond operators are earning really big amounts but they do not care about the host environment. The sludge at the bottom of the sea is so thick already that it would take days to find dead fish there,? Carranza said.
The industry has also exploited small fishermen who were hired as caretakers, he said.
Caretakers are given commissions for sales, ?so why are the operators getting very rich, while their caretakers are still very poor?? he said.
In 2002, hundreds of volunteers trooped to the beaches to remove dead bangus, while the municipal government sent trucks to collect and bury them somewhere in the hills.
This year, however, some fish cage operators simply abandoned the dead bangus, leaving them to rot on the shores.