Caridad Robles could only shake her head while she counts her earnings from selling packed lunch at the Department of Justice offices in Quezon City.
She sighs in resignation because by her estimate, the bills and coins in her hands would not be enough to cover the school allowance of her two children studying at the Bulacan Polytechnic College (BPC) and Bulacan State University, both in the capital city of Malolos.
As one of the thousands of Bulakenyos whose spouses are overseas Filipino workers, Robles perseveres as she sells cooked fish and other seafood in offices in Metro Manila thrice weekly.
When Robles ventured in this trade six years ago, she was earning well because she was getting her supply of seafood from a fish port in Hagonoy at lower prices.
But this situation would change as the volume of harvest from Bulacan’s fishing grounds, particularly the harvest from the sea facing the province, continuously drops.
The situation could not be ignored because even fish traders and vendors in Hagonoy town have noticed that the supply they have been selling each day were of the cultured variety or fish grown and harvested in ponds and cages. The marine varieties, once abundant, have become rare.
Low fish supply
The diminishing supply of fish caught in the Bulacan sea has increased the prices of marine variety and reduced the earnings of ordinary vendors, like Robles. The problem is compounded by the continuous spike in the cost of basic commodities and the increasing expenses of many households in Bulacan.
“I need to persist because if I would depend solely on the remittances from my husband, then our children would not be able to go to school. By selling cooked food, I can somehow earn extra for our daily expenses and for my children’s school needs,” says Robles.
Local officials, fishermen and ordinary residents blame the continuous drop in fish production in Bulacan to the worsening pollution of the province’s river systems.
They agree that improper waste disposal and the lack of an effective waste management system had led to the degradation of Bulacan’s waterways. In fact, open dumps continue to operate in many towns in the province despite laws stopping these and prescribing instead the construction of sanitary landfills (SLF).
Marginal fishermen believe that one of the major sources of pollution here is the extensive use of aquafeeds by commercial fish farms, an observation that is shared by the Integrated Services for the Development of Aquaculture (Isda), a group of commercial fish farms and fishponds operators in Bulacan and other provinces in Central Luzon.
However, Lito Lacap, president of Isda, says their members acknowledge the traditional methods of fish culture where they avoid using commercial aquafeeds in between harvests.
As one of the provinces facing the Manila Bay, Bulacan is among the top producers of bangus (milkfish), a variety grown in ponds, in the country.
Records from the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics showed that Bulacan was among the three provinces that led in the production of oysters, tilapia and prawns from 2001 to 2004.
But longtime fishermen in the province say the production from the province’s fishponds would pale in comparison to the abundant supply from the sea in decades past.
Causes of pollution
Local fishermen are one in blaming the continuing degradation of and pollution in Bulacan’s sea and rivers for their diminishing catch.
Gov. Wilhelmino Sy-Alvarado and Vice Gov. Daniel Fernando acknowledged the sad state of the province’s waterways.
Alvarado recalls his childhood spent swimming and fishing in a river in Sto. Rosario village in his hometown of Hagonoy. “That was our swimming pool. Its water was clear and clean then,” he says.
But Max Crisostomo, president of the Hagonoy Municipal Cooperative Development Council (MCDC) says the boom in housing construction along the river should not be blamed solely for the destruction of plants and mangroves that served as breeding ground for fish and other marine creatures.
Crisostomo says the expansion of fishponds is a major contributor to this problem.
The remaining plants and trees on the pond paddies, he said, were cleared by fishpond owners because thieves used these as hiding places as they stalk the ponds at night to steal its stock.
Crisosostomo laments that not only fish suffer from the loss of trees as migratory and local birds look for other areas to roost with the mangroves gone. Among the species displaced is the Philippine mallard or wild duck, whose population was once abundant in the coastlines of Bulacan.
Bulacan officials and residents say the almost 100 years of neglect and indiscriminate disposal of wastewater from industries along the river and its tributaries had led to death of this body of water. Most of the shoe and leather factories, jewelry shops and battery recyclers along the river system lack wastewater treatment facilities and dispose chemical-laden wastewater directly into the river that eventually empties out into the Manila Bay.
Records from the Department of Environment and Natural resources show that Marilao-Meycauayan-Obando river system, including the rivers of Bocaue, Balagtas and Guguinto towns, has classified these waterways as “biologically dead.”
Aware of this situation, engineer Herminio del Rosario says he and his wife decided to sell a fishpond that his wife had inherited from her parents in the village of Saluysoy in Meycauayan.
“We were losing money because our fish stocks could barely survive due to the poor water quality in that area,” Del Rosario says.
Elsewhere in Bulacan, many farmers and fishpond operators have been contemplating on selling these vast tracts of land due to the growing belief that these have become unproductive.
And this belief is borne out of the continuing pollution besieging the province’s waterways.
But the impact of this situation is felt heavier by small fishermen because their situation is different from fishpond and land owners who could easily dispose of their properties.
The big question remains: Where would the next generation of fishermen and vendors get their livelihood if pollution continues to besiege Bulacan’s waters?
By Dino Balabo