Save Taal Lake to save the ‘tawilis’

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The now-endangered tawilis

Story by Jonathan L. [email protected]jonlmayuga

‘Gulay, bangus, tilapia kayo diyan [Please buy vegetables, milkfish, tilapia]!” shouted Jose (not his real name) as he passed by a group of people just outside a flea market in General Trias, Cavite. 

Jose, an ambulant vendor, was asked by a customer if he is selling tawilis (bombon sardines).

“Not anymore,” he said. “There’s no more tawilis. You have to go to Batangas. If you are lucky, you might find some in the fish landing. What you see in the market today are most probably salinyasi. They are not from Taal [Lake]. They are saltwater fish,” Jose laughed.  “They are not tawilis. They are fake,” he insisted. 

Picture-perfect crater lake of Taal Volcano, as viewed from the Balete view deck

‘Endangered’

The population of the tawilis that is endemic only in Taal Lake has been in the decline for more than a decade now. Recently assessed as “endangered” after it was included in the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in February 2017, the clamor to save it from extinction reverberated anew.

Officials of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) of the Department of Agriculture, and the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) have agreed with the observation of the IUCN that the tawilis—the only freshwater sardine in the world—is becoming scarce because of various threats.

Overfishing, pollution and the problem brought about by invasive alien species have been identified as the threats to the tawilis, which is exclusively found in Taal Lake, a unique ecosystem which forms part of Taal Volcano Protected Landscape (TVPL).

Experts believe that to save the rare tawilis, the government intervention should also focus on saving the Taal Lake, which is itself an “endangered” ecosystem.

The TVPL is classified as highly urgent for biodiversity conservation by the DENR-BMB based on the results of the National Biodiversity Conservation Priority Setting Project jointly undertaken by the agency, in partnership with the University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies, and Conservation International-Philippines. 

Tawilis is also being showcased as part of food tourism in towns around the lake, including the popular Tagaytay in Cavite, where tawilis delicacies are sold to local and foreign tourists eating in high-end restaurants or some small carinderia or eatery.

Temporary tawilis-fishing ban

Oceana Philippines is calling on the DENR and the BFAR to impose a temporary fishing ban on tawilis in Taal Lake, to protect the species and save the livelihood of small fishers.

“The Protected Area Management Board of Taal Volcano Protected Landscape has already endorsed seasonal closure of tawilis to give it time to reproduce. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources proposed a three-month fishing ban on tawilis since 2013. The DENR and BFAR must join forces to curb the major threats to the survival of tawilis and to ensure that there is sustainable management of this species,” said lawyer Gloria Estenzo Ramos, vice president of Oceana Philippines, an international organization working to protect and restore the world’s oceans.

Ramos added that while seasonal closure will contribute to reviving the stock, it must be supported by other fisheries management measures to ensure long-term sustainability of the area, such as tight control on fish pens, regular monitoring of water quality, prevention of invasive species and no-nonsense enforcement of environmental laws.  

“Demand for tawilis has driven the fish to near extinction and this must be carefully studied by both scientists and resource economists,” Ramos said.

Pablo Rosales, chairman of Progresibong Alyansa ng mga Mangingisda sa Pilipinas, said the overfishing of tawilis can be addressed by regulating the fishing activities of commercial fishers.

“The ban must focus on the commercial fishing sector. Their boats are large, and their gears are very efficient, so they catch majority of the stocks. At the same time, municipal fishers are also displaced, and left with lesser catch,” Rosales added.

He said that illegal fishers in Taal Lake which operate without licenses and use destructive gears, and establishments which cause marine pollution in the area must also be held accountable.

Rosales urges the adoption of a national management framework to sustainably utilize and manage all sardine species in the country.

Data from the National Stock Assessment Program show that aside from tawilis, other sardine species which are harvested in the ocean, such as Sardinella lemuru and Sardinella gibbosa, or more commonly known as tambantuloy and tabagak, are also overfished.

 “There’s an urgent need to implement a science-based sardine management framework that will address issues on the overfishing of sardines, regulate the catch of juveniles, and allow sardine stocks to spawn and reproduce. The continuous encroachment of commercial fishers in municipal waters must also be addressed,” Ramos said.

Oceana also welcomed the stoppage of production and voluntary withdrawal of tawilis products of certain companies in the market. “This goes only to show that the business sector is open to integrating sustainability as a corporate philosophy and is a much-lauded move,” Ramos added.

Biodiversity loss

Besides tawilis, about 87 percent of fish species in Taal Lake had disappeared as of 1996, according to a study conducted as early as the 1920s, said AA Yaptinchay of the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines.

“There was even a bull shark in the lake but it is now extinct,” he said.

Yaptinchay said Taal is faced with problems caused by invasive alien species—both plant and fish. He noted that the major culprits are tilapia and water hyacinths. Others are the Thai catfish and Chinese soft-shelled turtles. 

“Either they compete with space and food resources of the tawilis, or prey on them,” he said.

According to Yaptinchay, the government should step in and put in place stricter regulations to address the various problems besetting the TVPL.

“There are many threats besides fishing, such as pollution and invasive species, which need to be addressed,” he said, adding that all hopes are not lost in saving Taal Lake.

“If it undergoes ecological restoration, meaning clean up the pollution, remove invasive species and regulate fish catches, there is hope,” he said.

‘Abused, neglected economic resource’

Being a watershed, the Taal Lake is an important economic resource for many people, particularly in Tagaytay City in the province of Cavite, and Taal lakeshore towns in the province of Batangas.

Besides its being a popular tourist destination, Taal Lake and its surrounding environment provide the people important economic resource like land for agriculture, and the lake itself for fisheries—both for small fishermen and small fish-cage operators.

The lake has a total surface area of 24,356.4 hectares, the country’s third-largest lake next to Laguna de Bay and Lake Lanao.

There are close to 6,000 fish cages in various parts of Taal Lake where tilapia and bangus are being raised.

Around the lake are farms that make use of various pesticides and fertilizers. These agrichemicals all drain into the lake during heavy rains.

Worse, a total of 37 small rivers drain into Taal Lake, originating from Tagaytay Ridge, Talisay, Balete, Mataas na Kahoy, Alitagtag, Agoncillo and Laurel. Only one river, Pansipit River, about 8.2 kilometers long, drains Taal Lake at San Nicolas into Balayan Bay.

These rivers are all sources of pollution, particularly untreated wastewater from households with no sewer treatment plants or not connected to proper sewer lines, thereby, aggravating the degradation of the important water body.

Protected area

Perhaps the most popular tourist destination in the Southern Tagalog region, the TVPL was established by virtue of Proclamation 923, Series of 1996 signed on November 19, 1996.

The municipalities of Talisay, Malvar, Tanauan, Laurel, Agoncillo, Santa Teresita, Cuenca, Alitagtag, Mataas na Kahoy, Balete, San Nicolas, Lemery and Taal, and Lipa City, all in Batangas province, and Tagaytay City in Cavite province share jurisdiction and mandate over TVPL under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (Nipas) Act.

Being a protected area and a source of income and livelihood of many fishermen, including fish-cage operators, the BFAR and BMB exercise joint regulatory powers over TVPL.

A former director of the DENR-BMB, Theresa Mundita S. Lim, said she is not surprised tawilis is already considered endangered.

“It has a limited range and there is anecdotal information from local folks that the fish is not as frequently seen or caught nowadays compared to more than decades ago,” Lim, currently the executive director  of the Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), said.

Stronger protection

Declaring an area as a protected, like the Taal Landscape, should not be the end of the protection measure, the biodiversity conservation expert said. 

Instead, Lim said it should give more reason for additional efforts to strengthening its protection, and the campaign to save the tawilis is one of those measures.

“As a protected area, your main goal is to maintain the ecological integrity of the landscape. And to do this, you must ensure that the various species that make the ecosystem function and sustain its capacity to provide the services the way it does, continue to exist and to thrive,” she explained.

To save the tawilis, she said there is a need to address the various threats, holistically.

“This cannot be done by a single sector or entity alone,” she noted.

“The management plan of TVPL already seeks to do this. But we need also the public, the consumers, to be more aware that if they want to continue to enjoy the scenic Taal, along with the unique taste of its endemic tawilis and the maliputo, they can also play a role by demanding for responsibly sourced/cultured fishery products from the lake,” she explained.  

Such public involvement, Lim said, can help make it easier to limit the fish cages and reduce unsustainable aquaculture practices, as well as illegal fishing.

In addition, she cited that pollution must also be addressed at the source.

“The LGUs [local government units], communities and the industries around the lake can also work alongside each other to keep the water quality up to standard. So perhaps we just need a rallying point for concerted action for TVPL, it could just be ‘to save the tawilis.’ The continued existence of the tawilis can, thus, be considered a good indicator for successful management efforts in the TVPL,” she said.

Writ of Kalikasan

The TVPL is the subject of a continuing mandamus issued by the Supreme Court in February 2012. Filed by then-Agham Party-list Rep. Angelo Palmones, the complaint aims to protect the lake from human activities, including fish-cage operation. 

The Supreme Court, deciding in favor of the petition filed by the veteran radio broadcaster, referred the continuing mandamus to the Court of Appeals, which approved a memorandum of agreement reached by Palmones and the DENR.

These include strictly regulating fish-cage operation and monitoring of water quality in the lake.

Sought for comment, Palmones told the BusinessMiror the decline of the rare tawilis and other fish in the TVPL is a result of decades of neglect and abuse. The government intervention and program implemented in the TVPL appeared to be inadequate, Palmones said, and was not sustained. 

He noted that in 2017, funding or budget allocation specifically for activities meant to help save the Taal Lake ceased.

“This is the right time to review what we have started in the TVPL,” he said in a telephone interview on January 29.

Punitive action

According to Palmones, to save the rare tawilis from extinction, it would require drastic measures and the complete support of various stakeholders.  

The former lawmaker said overfishing, particularly by companies engaged in bottling sardines, including small and medium enterprises (SMEs), should stop.

“The continued depletion of tawilis, considered as an endemic treasure of the Philippines, clearly demands for punitive action on LGUs and businesses within the TVPL,” he said.

According to Palmones, residents and establishments, especially livestock farms around TVPL never ceased on discharging pollutants and untreated wastewater to tributaries of the lake.

“The DENR must resume funding and empowering the PASu [Protected Area Superintendent] of TVPL to fully implement the continuing mandamus issued by the Court of Appeals in 2012 to save Taal Lake, and our tawilis,” he said.

Rehabilitation, other measures

According to Jose Elmer C. Bascos, Batangas Provincial Environment and Natural Resource Officer (Penro) and concurrent TVPL Protected Area superintendent, part of the continuing effort to save the tawilis is protecting and conserving the TVPL, particularly the Taal Lake’s ecosystem.

The rehabilitation of Taal Lake, he said, is no letup even as he admitted that they need to step up measures to save the tawilis from extinction.

Various measures, he said, have also been introduced by concerned government agencies, including strictly limiting the number of fish cages in Taal. 

Interviewed by the BusinessMirror via telephone on January 28, Bascos said as far as fisheries is concerned, the DENR-BMB, through the management of the TVPL, is working with the DA-BFAR and LGUs in implementing the Unified Fishery Rules and Regulation.

 “On Thursday, we will have a stakeholders’ meeting to discuss how to strengthen our protection and conservation measures for the TVPL and how to save the tawilis,” he said.

 “We are also planning to declare three areas in Taal Lake as tawilis conservation areas, where fishing will not be allowed,” he said. The areas are the fishing grounds in Balete, San Nicolas and Cuenca town.

According to Bascos, starting this year, the management of the TVPL—which includes the various heads of agencies and LGUs comprising the Protected Area Management Board—will implement a tawilis closed season every March and April, the months they are known to breed, to allow the rare fish species to reproduce and replenish the lake with new stocks.

Confirming that the many rivers drain to Taal Lake, he said so far, the pollution level of Taal Lake is not as alarming as in Laguna de Bay. He said they now limit the number of fish cages in the lake to a maximum of 6,000 units and allow only floating fish feeds to reduce potential pollution. 

He said he will recommend the massive rehabilitation of Taal Lake, similar to that in Boracay and Manila Bay, to further boost efforts in preventing the dumping of solid waste and untreated wastewater that find their way into rivers that drain into the lake.

Image Credits: Arvel Malubag, Taal Volcano Protected Landscape/DENR-SCIS.