By Juan Escandor Jr.
BUHI, Camarines Sur---Lacking systematic and scientific way of preserving and regenerating the population of the smallest commercial fish in the world---sinarapan (Mystichthys luzonensis), the town of Buhi in Camarines Sur struggles to revive the fish’s abundance in Lake Buhi that gives the town its brand name.
A first-class municipality (PSA: P55M or more annual income) with more than 77,000 inhabitants, Buhi is known for its lake because of sinarapan and the pioneering tilapia aquaculture venture using fish cages that started here in 1980s.
Located more than 57 km southeast of Naga City, the town sits at the edge of Mt. Asog which made a lateral eruption towards the town and spawned Lake Buhi centuries ago.
Considered the smallest commercial fish in the world with an average length of 12 mm, sinarapan which belongs to the goby family can also be found in Lake Bato in the town of Bato and two other small lakes named Manapao and Katugday at the upper portion of Buhi town at the foot of Mt. Asog.
“I want the sinarapan to be seen by tourists in the waters of Lake Buhi,” Margarita Moran Aguinillo, first-time mayor of Buhi town, yearns. “The tourists are really asking to see the sinarapan because that is what the town is known for.”
Because they cannot show sinarapan to the tourists in Lake Buhi like the way the butanding is in Donsol, they maintain an aquarium with sinarapan at the lobby of the municipal building, Aquinillo narrated.
She said she wanted a study to be conducted regarding how and where sinarapan spawn so that they can declare more lake areas as sanctuaries while the present sinarapan sanctuary has yet to be declared by an ordinance. She also wanted to know the maturity stage and lifespan of sinarapan to determine the season for fishing once their abundance in the lake reached a utilization level.
Aquinillo recalled there was a sinarapan council that meets and discusses about how to preserve and manage the sinarapan which council was organized when she was still a councilor in 2010.
She said they draw funding for the maintenance of sinarapan sanctuaries in lakes Manapao and Katugday from the 10 percent development fund of the local government.
From the abundance of the sinarapan stock before it had been depleted by overfishing in the 1980s-1990s coupled with the proliferation of fish cages, the local government continuously imposes the fishing ban on sinarapan in Lake Buhi, according to Ronelo Leal, lake development officer.
But the sale of dried sinarapan, considered here a delicacy that fetches P100 for one-fourth kilo at present, is openly sold in Buhi town.
Leal said they have not made much progress after five years of seeding the waters with ready-to-spawn sinarapan to repopulate and regain their abundance in Lake Buhi.
He said there are already visible sinarapan population in the 25-ha sanctuary in the lake waters fronting the villages of Ibayugan and Tambo. Six other villages---Cabatuan, Salvacion, Poblacion, Sta. Cruz, Ipil, and Iraya---surround Lake Buhi.
Leal said the total area of Lake Buhi at present has yet to be upraised because it seemed it has shrunk to 1,300 ha based on measurement of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), from its baseline area of 1,800 ha.
He said they undertake seeding of Lake Buhi, from November to December, using ready-to-spawn sinarapan harvested from Manapao Lake. He said he cannot estimate the quantity of sinarapan they had transferred in Lake Buhi since there are no restocking records. But they started the sinarapan seeding project in 2011, he added.
All Leal could say is that when the lake water is high, sirapan would appear on the edges of the fish sanctuary near the floating hyacinths as proof there is some success with their seeding project.
He said before they started the seeding project in 2011, not a single sinarapan can be seen in the waters of Lake Buhi.
While Leal notes that the fishing ban on sinarapan has been relatively successful with periodic violations by the locals, the issue and challenge of bad water quality by years of tilapia aquaculture production using commercial feeds remain. He said the silt has piled up at the bottom of the lake from excess and unutilized feeds.
He said that when they started clearing Lake Buhi of excess fish cages, several fish cage operators, smarting from the order to dismantle their fish cages, just removed their fish cages from the floats and posts and hide them at the murky bottom of the lake.
“When the heat of enforcement cool down, some fish cage operators resurfaced their fish cages which we have no count at present,” Leal said.
The lake development officer said the present inventory of the number of fish cages, traps and corrals installed in Lake Buhi reached 16,000 units owned by 1,034 operators and occupying 166 ha of the lake waters.
“We cannot determine if the present occupied area by aquaculture development exceed the 10 percent of the lake area allowed by Republic Act 8550, since a 2007 survey showed an area of 1,707 ha while the Water Quality Management Area (WQMA) put it at 1,300 ha,” he said.
Leal said WQMA, a body headed by the DENR with representatives from the National Water Resources Board, Office of the Governor, Office of the Mayor and barangay sectors, aims “to protect and improve the water quality of Lake Buhi to make it sustaining resources for the people of Buhi, Camarines Sur.” It is mandated under RA Act 9275 or the Philippine Water Act of 2004.
Edwin Salvamante, senior environmental management officer who sits in WQMA, said the WQMA has already approved a 10-year action plan, 2014-2015, that indirectly benefits the revival of sinarapan in Lake Buhi waters.
10-year water quality plan
Among the major actions the WQMA is to undertake in a 10-year period is to “fast-track the implementation or enforcement of the 10 percent of the lake’s area as fish cage area,” Salvante said.
He said they have to impose continuous dismantling of fish cages outside of the designated areas including those installed in navigational areas, to achieve the 10 percent maximum allowable for aquaculture development in the lake. He said this action will be done in partnership with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) with funding request from the provincial government of Camarines Sur.
Salvamante said they will also carry out talks with the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) regarding the adjustment of the water control structure that regulates the water discharge from the lake to Tabao River. NIA utilizes water from Lake Buhi for its irrigation channels going to the rice fields in the fifth district of Camarines Sur.
“We want the NIA to adjust the water control structure so that the silt will be swept down from the lake,” he said.
Salvamante said the WQMA will also deal with illegal lakeshore dwellers who had occupied lake area, build waste water treatment facility, install monitoring stations for agrichemicals from farms and relocate the public market and abattoir away from the lake, among others.