Calatagan, a once sleepy agricultural and fishing municipality in Batangas, is now a certified tourist magnet. Thanks to “kuyug,” the area’s famous fish.
Kuyug, rabbitfish in English, or “samaral” in Filipino, is more popularly known as “danggit” in the Visayas which is mostly dried and exported by Cebu.
Like Cebu, known for its thriving dried fish business, Calatagan is blessed with the economically important fish.
What is kuyug?
“Rabbitfishes are medium-sized herbivorous fish native to the Indo-Pacific region,” explained environmentalist Gregg Yan. There are 28 known rabbitfish species, which thrive in shallow coastal areas.
They are popular food fish, with wild-capture fisheries supplying the bulk of production.
Indonesia and the Philippines are the planet’s top rabbitfish suppliers, with 2021 landings of around 76,000 tons and 25,000 tons, respectively, according to United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (UN-FAO) data.
“The high demand for these species is causing overfishing and a decline in wild stocks. Thus, developing efficient and science-based ways to culture rabbitfish has become ever more urgent,” Yan said.
Last year Yan co-authored a UN-FAO paper titled, “Rabbitfish Farming in Asia,” along with Dutch fisheries experts and environmental advocates Jonan van Beijnen and Kyra Hoevenaars.
Calatagan is a known producer of its version of dried kuyug.
Its Mayor Peter Oliver Palacio aptly described it as “malinamnam at malaman [tasty and meaty].”
The secret: “Unlike in other areas, our dried kuyug is meaty. Because we don’t dry them under the sun or solar dry too much,” he told the BusinessMirror in Filipino.
Of course, the municipality’s public market also sells fresh kuyug. But market vendors prefer to dry in answer to the big demand from the tourism sector.
Rabbitfish thrive only in healthy coastal and marine environments, which can be found in Calatagan, some 131 kilometers from Manila.
In the entire Batangas province, Calatagan is the only place where kuyug can be found thriving.
Fortunately, Calatagan, which is situated in the Verde Island Passage, is far from Naujan, Oriental Mindoro, and is not affected by the recent oil spill, which many sectors, including foreign experts, are trying to contain in order to prevent further damage to coastal and marine ecosystems.
Palacio confided that he came up with the idea of promoting ecotourism, starting with having a festival—the Kinuyug Festival.
The local government launched its first Kinuyug Festival in 2016, from December 13 to 16, in time with the founding anniversary of Calatagan. It has since become part of the annual celebration in the municipality.
Why name the festival Kinuyug? The mayor replied laughing: “Why not? It’s in celebration of kuyug. It is more appealing.”
While popularizing Calatagan’s famous fish, the mayor said they are also popularizing the near-white sand beaches of Calatagan.
First-class beach resorts are all over Calatagan, making it an ideal weekend getaway from the stressful life in Metropolitan Manila.
“While promoting dried kuyug, we are also promoting our beaches,” the mayor said.
Healthy coastal,marine ecosystem
Calatagan boasts of having a healthy coastal and marine ecosystem. It has vast reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves and crystal clear, literally, clean waters.
The mayor said the municipality is the only place in Batangas with beautiful reefs.
“That is the character of Calatagan. Other towns don’t have reefs. We have beautiful reefs,” he proudly said.
Calatagan also keeps its seagrass protected from destructive fishing practices. Blast and cyanide fishing have been “neutralized” by an army of volunteers who have realized the economic potential of ecotourism.
Take it from couple Rodel and Agnes Cardona, owners of the 3s Seniorito’s and R2D Floating Cottages. Rodel used to be a heavy-equipment operator, including pay loader.
Interviewed on March 1, the couple told the BusinessMirror in Filipino that Calatagan’s thriving ecotourism is beneficial to the residents.
Rodel said he now prefers to be a Bantay Dagat (Sea Patrol) and floating-cottage operator than a heavy equipment operator.
“I like this job better. We are having our second floating cottage constructed and we are optimistic this summer will be better,” Rodel said.
His wife Agnes noted that they have realized that having a healthy coastal and marine ecosystem is beneficial to the community.
“That is why we are helping protect our waters. Because our fish will go away if the water is not clean,” Agnes said.
Owners of floating cottages do not work every Wednesday. They dedicate the day to coastal cleanup activities in support of the LGU’s protection and conservation efforts of its coastal and marine environment.
Calatagan LGU counted 700 duly-registered floating cottages all over the municipality, docked in 13 different locations that cater to tourists, who prefer the beautiful beaches over other coastal areas in Batangas.
Asean Centre for Biodiversity Executive Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim told the BusinessMirror via Messenger on March 10 that rabbitfish play an important role in the ecosystem.
“They feed on algae, so they control algal growth that could invade coral ecosystems,” Lim said.
“Thus, they help coral ecosystems better recover from coral bleaching as they prevent algae from colonizing and killing affected corals,” she added.
Cultured fish, too
A research team at the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) in the Philippines, led by Dr. Westly Rosario, successfully cultured two of the most commercially interesting candidates, the goldlined spinefoot, or golden rabbitfish (Siganus guttatus), and the vermiculated spinefoot, or maze rabbitfish (Siganus vermiculatus).
“Rabbitfish are grazers, akin to the antelope of the African savannah. As opposed to eating the equivalent of predatory ‘lions’ like lapu-lapu, maya-maya or talakitok, culturing and eating marine herbivores like rabbitfish, which are situated quite low in the food chain, can help achieve food security in developing archipelagic countries like the Philippines,” Yan said.
“The grow-out and marketing of Philippine-raised samaral can provide best alternatives and livelihood options for our coastal communities,” he added.
“It might just be the next big seafood hit,” Yan said
Marianne P. Saniano, Science and Conservation campaign manager at Oceana, told the BusinessMirror via Messenger on March 8 that rabbitfish can grow as as long as 40 centimeters (cm).
The UN FAO said males are smaller than females, with standard lengths of 11 cm to 14 cm for males, and 13 cm to 21 cm for females. The maximum sizes range from 20 cm to 45 cm standard length.
Because they are an all-time favorite, the price of a kilo of dried danggit ranges from P700 to P1,500, Saniano said.
“In the Philippines, juveniles of danggit are dried and become part of breakfast menu enjoyed with sinamak [spiced vinegar],” she said.
According to Saniano, they are found in seagrass areas, which hosts a variety of marine organisms.
“However, these areas are under threat because of various human activities like coastal development, dump-and-fill projects, dredging, etc. Destruction of its habitat means the danggit will lose its home and source of food, endangering its population,” she said.
Fast-growing, prolific fish
Jimely Flores, science and policy consultant at the Environment Defense Fund, said rabbitfishes are fast growing and prolific.
“They significantly depend on seagrass beds, which are important habitats to successfully complete the fish life cycle. They can be cultured and hatchery-reared, thus, they are not endangered. But we are harvesting them faster than they can reproduce,” Flores told the BusinessMirror through Messenger on March 9.
According to Flores, there are many methods to ensure sustainable harvesting of fish, such as kuyug or danggit.
“Depending on the stakeholders, some are a combination of temporospatial closure, size limits, gear restriction and limits—in input and output control, which is total allowable catch,” she said.
She said whatever measure is put in place, it should always be science-based.
“[The stakeholders] must also agree to methods of control with accountability and higher compliance. There must be clear indicators and must be transparent,” she said.
Image credits: BERNARD TESTA