What happened to the fish in Taal Lake?
(Editor’s Note: This article by the freelance writer attempts to pinpoint the causes of the fishkill in Taal Lake as well as the social forces and technical reasons behind the carnage. This article is based on a group interview of three residents from two Taal towns, who have all requested anonymity.)
Let us first talk of the carrying capacity of the lake. According to the residents interviewed, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) set a limit of 10,000 fish cages which, they said, was very arbitrary and had very little scientific basis. Not only that, the residents estimated that the number of cages was really in the vicinity of 15,000.
The number of fish cages is actually not known because when the BFAR takes a regular count, shrewd fish cage operators tow their mobile cages to areas where the count has been done. There is also an existing practice of duplicating the fish cage license for other cages, so a true count is impossible.
The BFAR cannot be blamed totally as it does not have the funds for enough boats and personnel to do proper monitoring. So, there is a dangerous free-for-all in Taal Lake.
Overfeeding is one of the major causes of the fishkill. There are two types of feeds—the floating kind and the sinking kind.
Fish cage operators mostly use the sinking kind because it is cheaper. It is made up of sticky pellets which break up into fine powder when they hit the water.
The main ingredient of the feeds is chicken manure. Let us say that an operator uses 20 kilos of feeds per day, only about half or even less is consumed. The other 10 kilos sink to the bottom of the deep lake.
I pushed some figures with the interviewees. One said that in a seminar, he was told that the rough estimate was one ton of feeds per cage per month.
Due to overfeeding, let us say the operators use two tons. Let us take the conservative figure of 10,000 cages, which translates into a total lake input of a staggering 20,000 tons of feeds a month, half of which, or 10,000 tons, sink to the bottom of the lake.
Let us say the fish defecate half of the 10,000 tons of feeds. So that is a total of 15,000 tons per month at the bottom of the lake.
This translates into 180,000 tons of waste per year at the bottom of the lake. This is an alarming figure, but the operators do not know and do not care.
The feeds are rich in nitrogen, triggering a rapid bloom of lake weed at the surface (called digman in the local dialect).
According to one resident, there were no lake weeds at all 10 years ago. When the weeds started to proliferate, operators sold it to Bio-research which uses it for aquarium decor.
Today, the weeds are so profuse, that its price is too cheap to bother selling. The weeds also have become so dense that boats can hardly navigate Taal Lake.
When the plentiful lake weeds die and are replaced by a new bloom, they rot and sink to the bottom, joining the manure-rich unused feeds at the bottom.
Because the lake is deep, this invisible time bomb takes time to explode through gradual decomposition.
The rotting feeds and lake weed sucks up the oxygen at the bottom. In time, waves, currents, and wind, especially during a storm, churn up the lake and brings the bottom water with little oxygen up to surface and the fish die of suffocation. The weeds moved by current and wind also acts as a powerful mixer.
The BFAR has constantly warned the operators not to overfeed as they would be poisoning the lake that gives them livelihood. But no one listens.
Mother of disaster
Greed is the mother of disaster, and the vengeance of Mother Nature is the karma for greed.
Operators want their fish stocks to grow fast. The feed cost is a trifling compared to the windfall of selling large fish.
A resident reported that the BFAR admitted that there was pressure from the local government for them not to report their findings in order to protect the industry.
This is because there are mayors and town officials who are themselves fish operators. This unholy alliance of government and private sector based on greed is the social force that has killed the Taal Lake.
The number of operators grew rapidly from 100 to 15,000 in 10 years time, according to broad estimates of the residents.
Talisay, where fish cages are gradually killing the tourism businesses, is dominated by rich Taiwanese and Korean businessmen.
Because these foreigners have the money, suspected by residents to be “hot” laundered money from Taipei and Seoul, they improved on the fish cages, replacing bamboo floaters with circular steel pipes, so the storms could no longer ruin the cages, like before.
It was a Filipino invention funded by foreigners. Today, an average cage will easily cost a million pesos, making it a big-time industry out of the reach of locals and encouraging an invasion by foreigners.
A resident ventured to say about 30 percent of cages in Taal are now owned by foreigners.
Saving the lake
The next question I asked the interviewees: What do we do to save the lake?
One resident suggested the lake was beyond saving.
Another suggested the regulation of sinking feeds through a clearinghouse where all feeds have to pass.
But this is impossible because there are many access roads to the lake perimeter road. This is also impossible to control even at the factories making them. It would be easy to smuggle in feeds.
Perhaps the only way is a total ban on sinking feeds.
Another resident suggested a stricter regulation of fish cage operators.
This will not work as long as there is a partnership between the local government and operators, which can pressure the BFAR to look the other way.
There was a time when an Army-Navy task force burned illegal cages. This victory was short-lived. The cages were replaced by bigger ones owned by richer and more powerful operators.
Also, most of the cages burned were rotting ones, saving operators the cost of dismantling them. The Army-Navy team did them a favor.
Added to this mix of social forces is the violent politics during election for a perfect environmental broth. Incoming officials will need the fish cages whose operators will provide them with campaign funds.
The final solution is obviously a total ban on fish cages for a given period, say two years. But it is not known if Taal Lake can be rehabilitated, and at what cost, and for how long.
Is Taal Lake dead and beyond resurrection? The “final final” or “major major” solution will have to come from the fish operators themselves to rehabilitate the lake and regulate themselves not by law but by initiative.
They have learned their lesson from this sudden lightning bolt out of nowhere that hit them and deprived them of millions of pesos in earnings.
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