By Bernie Lopez firstname.lastname@example.org The Philippine Daily Inquirer Front page, Dec 2011
PART 1 – What happened at Taal? This article is an attempt to pinpoint the causes of the fishkill in Taal Lake, the social forces and technical reasons behind the carnage. It 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 fishcages which the residents said was very arbitrary and had very little scientific basis. Thy claimed that the actual figure is in the vicinity of 15,000, by broad estimates, or 50% more than the BFAR limit. The number of fishcages is actually not known because when BFAR takes a regular count, shrewd fishcagers tow their mobile cages to areas where the count has been done. There is also an existing practice of duplicating the fishcage license for other cages, so a true count is impossible. 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. Fishcagers 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 a cager uses 20 kilos of feeds per day, only about half or even less is consumed. The other 10 kilos sinks to the bottom of the deep lake.
I pushed some figures with the interviewees. One said that in a seminar, he wasa told that the rough estimate was one ton of feeds per cage per month. Due to overfeeding, let us say the cagers 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 sinks 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 cagers 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, 10 years ago there were no weeds at all. When it started to proliferate, cagers 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. Today, the weeds are 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.
BFAR has constantly warned the cagers not to overfeed as they are in truth poisoning the lake that gives them livelihood. But no one listens. Greed is the mother of disaster. The vengeance of Mother Nature is the karma for greed. Cagers want their stocks to grow fast. The feed cost is a trifling compared to the windfall of selling large fish. A resident reported that BFAR admitted that there was pressure from the Local Government for them not to report their findings, to protect the industry. This is because there are mayors and town officials who are themselves fishcagers. This unholy alliance of government and private sector based on greed is the social force that has killed Taal Lake.
The number of cagers grew rapidly from 100 to 15,000 in ten years time, by broad estimates of the residents. Talisay, where fishcages is gradually killing the tourism businesses, is dominated by rich Taiwanese and Koreans. Because they have the money, suspected by residents to be ‘hot’ laundered money from Taipei and Seoul, they improve on the fishcages, replacing bamboo floaters with circular steel pipes, so the storms can no longer smach the cages, like before. It was a Filipino invention funded by foreigners. Today, an average size cage will easily cost a million pesos, making it a big time industry out of the reach of locals, encouraging the ‘invasion’ by foreigners. A resident ventured to say about 30% of cages in Taal are now owned by foreigners.
The next question I asked the interviewees was – what do we do to save the lake? One suggested it is beyond saving. Anoter suggested to regulate sinking feeds. Setup a clearing house where all feeds have to pass. This is impossible because there are many access roads to the lake perimeter road. This is also impossible to control even at the source, the factories making them. It would be easy to smuggle in feeds. Perhaps the only way is a total ban on sinking feeds.
Another suggested to regulate the producers. This will not work as long as there is a partnership between local government and fishcagers, which can pressure the regulator, BFAR, to look the other way. There was a time when an army-navy consortium burned illegal cages. This ‘victory’ was short lived. They were replaced by bigger cages owned by richer and more powerful cagers. Also, most of those burned were rotting cages, saving the cagers from the cost of dismantling them. The army navy 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 to get fishcages to pay for campaign funds.
The final solution is obviously a total ban on fishcages for a given period, say of two years. But it is not known if Taal can be rehabilitated, and at what cost, and for how long. In truth, is Taal Lake dead and beyond resurrection? The ‘final final’ or ‘major major’ solution will have to come from the fishcagers 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, where they have lost millions.
_______________________________ Part 2 – Taal Lake Geological History
By Bernie Lopez ‘eastwind journals‘ Opinyon Magazine, Dec. 18, 2011
This is Part 2, a sequel to last week’s Part 1 – ‘What happened at Taal?”, based on geological research and interviews of two ex-fishcage owners.
When the Sumatran tiger gorges on an adult male deer, he can easily consume 15 kilos of meat and not eat for the next three weeks. The Taal fishcager is very much like the Sumatran tiger, gorging on profits today in anticipation of a looming famine. Greed fuels the destruction of the very lake that gives him nourishment. BFAR Director Asis Perez says the fishkill could have been prevented if cagers followed rules on fish maintenance.
The problem with the fishcagers is they are so powerful, having connections in local government and congress, that they can defy the whole world in their environmental crime. They are so rich that they can launch their own media blitz. In their greed, they are begging for the imposition of a moratorium on fishcaging. The powerful fishcagers had their day, a media blitz through a front page article where they showed their powerful political friends feasting on bangus from Taal Lake. It was a futile attempt to save the day, because everybody knew it was all for show. The problem persists and will not go away, until the fishcagers undergo a spiritual transformation.
About a million years ago, Taal Volcano was as perfect a cone as Mount Fuji in Japan. An explosion ripped the entire volcano apart, one of the largest in prehistory, easily matching 10,000 Hiroshima bombs. It would make the volcanic explosions in Krakatoa in East Java or Mount Saint Helens in Washington, USA, look like firecracker affairs. What was left is the present-day caldera whose rim extends through Cavite, Laguna, and Batangas.
Through time, rain water accumulated in the caldera, forming the present-day Taal Lake. A small crater within the big crater (the caldera) formed, which is now Volcano Island. The entire Tagaytay area, with its scenic view, is one of the higher rims of that caldera. Mount Makulot in Cuenca, Batangas, is a ‘bulge’ on that rim.
Taal Lake, although much smaller in area than Laguna Lake, is theorized to have just as much water, if not even more. Laguna Lake is the largest nationwide but is extremely shallow, having an average depth of only eight meters. Taal Lake is much smaller but extremely deep, considering that water filled up a portion of the original magma vein that has cooled off (see graphics). So Taal Lake dives down deep vertically through this vein and was somehow connected to an underground river that emptied to the sea. No one knows how deep Taal Lake is or where the mouth of the underground river is, perhaps somewhere deep in Balayan Bay or even the South China Sea. Lunar tides do not affect Taal Lake, perhaps because it is so deep.
The geological theory of Taal Lake connected to the sea is based on the fact that the native tawilis is nothing but a mutant, the only evolved fresh-water sardine in the world. The succulent maliputo is nothing but a fresh-water version of the salt-water talakitok. It is theorized that these fish migrated to Taal, and adapted to fresh water. Perhaps the connection to the sea is now closed, no one knows. The tawilis ‘disappears’ in December because it goes down deep to spawn. By March, they come up with their fingerlings. The tawilis is an endangered exotic species because of over-fishing. Also, the carnivorous tilapia which are released from cages by typhoons, eat the tawilis.
If the lake has lost its connection to the sea, then sunken excess feeds and rotting lake weed accumulate forever at the bottom. If there is no outlet there, it is a dead end. If there is an outlet, it would be too narrow and would theoretically clog up anyway as it goes horizontally towards the sea. No one knows how the heavy waste churned upward from such low depths. Could it have been some volcanic rumblings? Pagasa should be able to give us some readings in the last few weeks before the fishkill. There were three simultaneous minor earthquakes before the fishkill, in Leyte, Isabela and Mindoro.
No one knows if Taal Lake can still be rehabilitated. Part 1 estimated 180,000 of waste per year before the fishkill. In a rapid growth situation since 1995, the accumulated amount of waste at the ‘bottomless pit’ may be circa 1.7 million metric tons. At extreme depth, we are not sure we can siphon that much, and even if we can, the staggering cost will rival the total profits from the lake since cages were born. The only outlet of Taal Lake is the Pansipit River, but this is only at the surface. Former President Ramos had the river mouth to the lake dredged, which was clogged by solid waste and silt, but only for a while.
The Taal Lake fishkill involved 2,056 metric tons of fish from 339 cages worth P144 million within 12 days. The reason greed is hard to resist is because of the staggering lake profit of about P19 billion a month, estimated broadly from the above figures.
The fishcage industry had good and bad effects. The bad effect was it suppressed the local duck industry by killing the shells which the ducks ate, according to fishcage owners. It is also killing the tourism industry by inhibiting access to Volcano Island. Foreign fishcagers were actually tourists who saw the profit potentials of fishcages. That is why they are today concentrated at Talisay, the tourist staging area to Volcano Island.
The good effect was the fishcages were a truly poverty alleviating force. The income from fishcages stopped the illegal logging in Mount Banaga, which started turning green once more. At the start, there was a 50-50 sharing among cage owners and fisherfolk as laborers, who were able to send their children to school, who have become OFWs, especially in Italy.
At the peak of fishcage growth, labor was imported from the Visayas, triggering a denser population. To this day, these outsiders remain and have mingled with the natives. If the fishcage industry goes down, a lot of people will go hungry. The key is the synergy between Man and Nature. Nature can nourish us as long as we respect and dialogue with her. The question is – are we too late in saving Taal Lake? Can we stop powerful forces from continuing to raped her?
Unlike Laguna Lake, which has planktons, Taal Lake has none, inducing more imported chemicals for intense feeding. One feed supplier reported bad debts of P2 million during typhoon seasons. In the beginning, the accepted stocking density per cage was 10,000 fish. Greed has increased this to a staggering 50,000. The super-greedy have dared to go up to 100,000. They simply overfeed and those which die are sold anyway. Because cages were near the shore areas for easy access, crowding and intense concentration of feed chemicals were inevitable there, while the center of the lake was clean and unoccupied.
Laguna Lake had retired generals as fishcagers, spawning armed guards and violence. Taal Lake is fortunate to not have such armed personnel. Laguna Lake has hundreds of factories spewing more deadly toxic chemicals, including heavy metals. These factories pay an environmental fee which keeps the LLDA alive, but is ironically helpless to police the factories in fear of losing income. Nowhere in the world does environmental fees cause more environmental damage. Taal Lake is fortunate that there are no mushrooming of factories. A disaster in Laguna Lake will dwarf the Taal Lake fishkill, the next that needs to be featured in print.
email@example.com About the Author After finishing MA Communication Arts at New York University in 1980, author Bernie Lopez drifted across Europe for two years in his adventures dubbed eastwind, hitchhiking 25,000 kilometers across 18 countries. He will soon launch a book on eastwind, “Discovering Your Inner Self”. Returning to the Philippines in 1984, the drifter evolved into a journalist/columnist, television documentary film producer, and professor at Ateneo’s graduate school. He is the administrator of the blog site of Sister Raquel Reodica, RVM, cancer healer of the Lord. For those who need healing, visit our site at – www.sisterraquel.com / firstname.lastname@example.org