Los Baños and Bay fishers uncertain of the ‘zero fish pens and fish cages policy’

by Cesar Ilao III

Despite the strong winds and light rain, 33-year old Crisanto Ramos is patiently weaving a large black fishnet on the shores of Laguna lake in the town of Bay. He ignores the inconveniences brought by the cloudy weather.

The fishnet is a part of their local government’s bottom-up budgeting project (BUB) to help the fishers of Brgy. Sto. Domingo.

At the back of Mang Crisanto are piled up fishnets he and his co-workers previously made, but these fishnets are left unused for months.

“Hindi namin ‘yan maikabit-kabit hangga’t hindi nasu-survey ng LLDA ‘yong mga cages dito.” said Julio Managat or more known as Mang Kano, the President of Barangay Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council (BFARMC) of Brgy. Sto. Domingo, Bay.

Mang Kano is still waiting for Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA) to check the fish cages owned by the fishers in his barangay. They are unsure if their cages are part of the ongoing demolition of fish pens and fish cages.

These piled up fishnets are part of a BUB project of Brgy. Sto. Domingo, Bay for their fishers, but are left unused due to the possibility that all fish pens and fish cages operations in Laguna lake will be stopped. Photo by Cesar Ilao III and Nel Benjamin Magdaleno

He expressed his fears on what the LLDA will do, which is also shared by the fishers in Los Baños.

“Ang gusto [kasi] ng DENR, ay i-total washout [ang lahat ng fish pens at fish cages].” said Francisco Carandang or Mang Kiko, the President of the Municipal Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council (MFARMC) of Los Baños.

What happened?

In 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte addressed in his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) his plan to transform Laguna lake into an economic zone and to prioritize the small-scale fishers. He pointed out the abuses done to the lake, including the excessive large fish pens that violated the Fisheries Code of 1998.

According to the code, only 10% of the surface of the lake or 9,000 hectares should be only allotted to fish farming, but many fish pen operators did not follow. The occupied surface reached 13,000 hectares.

The President gave the task to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to save the lake.

The DENR then gave the authority to the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA) to implement regulations that will handle the illegal structures.  The LLDA released its Board Resolution No. 518, containing a one-year moratorium or the prohibition of fish pens and fish cages in the lake.

The moratorium contains the following:

  • Prohibition of releasing new fish pen and fish cage permits, and stocking of fingerlings or small fishes in the lake after December 31, 2016.
  • All operators are expected to harvest their fish stocks and demolish their structures before March 31, 2017. If the operators do not follow, the LLDA is forced to demolish and confiscate their structures.

While waiting for the legal operators to follow the moratorium, the DENR and LLDA started removing illegal fish pens in various towns that surround the lake on January 26, 2017.

Mang Kiko said that he and other small-scale fishers will be the first recipients of fish cage permits once the moratorium is lifted.

Who are the small-scale fishers?

According to Dr. Blesshe Querijero, PhD of Fisheries Science and an expert in Aquaculture, the small-scale fishers are members of a Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council (FARMC).

These fishers are classified into two, depending on their methods of fishing:

  •  Open fishers – Rides on a boat and travels around the lake to catch fish using gillnet.
  • Fish farmers – Unlike open fishers, they do not travel with boats to catch fish, but they build cage net structures where they grow their fingerlings – the fish pen and fish cage.

Fish farmers are required to get a permit and a proper zoning of their pens and cages before they can build it in the lake.

A fisher can be an open fisher and a fish farmer at the same time.

Final decision or miscommunication?

Mang Kano does not have a document of the ‘zero fish pens and fish cages policy’ and a copy of the Board Resolution No. 518. What Mang Kano has is a letter sent by the LLDA to the fishers in Rizal he received from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) of Bay.

The letter contains the order of LLDA to the fishers in Rizal to remove their fish pens and fish cages as part of the moratorium. The message is clear for Mang Kano, but he expressed his confusion because the letter was only for the fishers of Rizal.

LOOK: LLDA letter for the fishers in Rizal are being distributed to other towns

He added that the LLDA does not have a coordinator in their town. The employees of LLDA left their office in Calauan Laguna, and transferred to Quezon City.

“Balita lang namin na gagawin yung zero cage [at zero fish pen], pero walang pinapadala sa aming letter. Hindi bumababa ang LLDA dito [sa lugar namin].” said Mang Kano.

Two months have passed after the LLDA started its demolition of fish pens and fish cages, but Mang Kano and Mang Kiko are still unsure of the decision they should make. They did not receive direct orders from the LLDA on the removal of their fish cages in their towns.

They originally thought that they were not part of the demolition.

Although Mang Kiko is firm on his belief that the LLDA wants to remove all structures in Laguna lake, Querijero rejects this claim.

“Sa wari ko ay hindi pa ‘yon totoo. Ang alam ko na ginagawa ng DENR ay tanggalin yung mga illegal fish pens… unless makita natin ‘yon [dokumento], I will not agree.” said Querijero.

Effects and opinions


 According to the data of Laguna de Bay Lake Wide Integrated FARMC, the town of Laguna has the most number of fishers in the lake. The possible removal of all fish pens and fish cages will affect fisherfolks – the sector that depends on the lake for livelihood.

“Ang hirap ng kalagayan namin. Maaapektuhan yung mga tindera namin, at yung aming hanap buhay ay talagang mawawala rin.”  said by 53-anyos na si Nieves Managat, a fish vendor and the wife of Mang Kano.

Nieves has been Mang Kano’s partner in managing the fish he harvests for years. After Mang Kano spend his time in the lake at dawn, his wife will sell the fish he caught to their neighbors. Their livelihood from the lake enabled them to send their two children to school.

The supply of fish might not support the needs of the consumers if all structures in the lake are removed, which was agreed upon by Querijero, Mang Kiko, and Mang Kano.

Although the structures have no clear connection to the pollution of the lake, Querijero explained the need of reducing the structures and defended the move of the government.

“There is a scientific basis to limit the number of fish pens, especially the amount of oxygen. It is not that they are against the poor. ‘Pag masyadong maraming fish cages, mag-aagawan sila sa oxygen content ng tubig.”

The oxygen is a component of the air breathed in by people to live. Querijero explained that insufficient oxygen content will lead to massive fish kill.

She also gave an opinion on the confusion among the fishers regarding the decision of the LLDA.

The removal of structures in the lake has positive and negative effects on the livelihood of the fishers and on the health of the lake. Photo by Cesar Ilao III and Nel Benjamin Magdaleno

“They have fear, because maybe there is no information yet that can soothe the issue. Maybe there is miscommunication or creation of fake information. Uso ngayon eh, [maraming] gumagawa ng agitation.” said Querijero.

Some projects are left unused because of the news of ‘zero fish pens and fish cages policy’, and the BUB project in Brgy. Sto. Domingo is an example. The project was long approved and funded with one million pesos.

According to Banasihan, an approved BUB project in Los Baños is also pending. The project involves 50 fish cages for small-scale fishers.

She added that the FARMC will be dissolved if fishers will not be allowed to benefit from the lake, and it will disobey the Executive Order No. 240 signed by former president Fidel Ramos. The order commands the formation of FARMCs as representatives of local fisherfolk.

Actions and wishes

Mang Kano hopes that the LLDA will clear the issue.

“Ang hiling namin, sila [LLDA] naman ang bumaba dito at maki-pulong samin. Ang kausapin nila ay yung talagang mamamayan.” said Mang Kano.

While waiting for the LLDA’s response, various fisher groups made actions to stop the possible policy of zero lake structures.

  • Various fisher groups sent letters to LLDA, DENR, and President Duterte to show their disagreement on the zero lake structures policy.
  • A signature campaign against the policy is being presented to all Laguna lake fishers, according to BFARMC President of Brgy. Tadlac, Los Baños, Reynaldo Erasga.
  • Mang Kano and Mang Kiko plan to make a resolution with the LLDA to transfer their fish cages to a proper zone to avoid demolition.

Uncertainty for the future

Crisanto has finished making the fishnet. Like the other nets he made before, it will just be one of the fishnets piled up again. Without a room for storage, it will be a delicacy for field rats. He and his co-workers have to wait for the time when they can finally throw it in the lake.

The nets are a symbol of their question that is often filled with fear and waiting, ‘for how long will we depend on the lake that sustained our family and the generations of fishers who went before us?’

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