As many other individual fish processors in Balansig, Aling Tita had less difficulty earning Php 30,000.00 in less than a month by processing her husband’s catch of freshwater fish from Naujan Lake. The smell did not really matter; her earnings were much better compared to the Php10,000 employees salary grade 15 which the municipal government of Naujan earn per month. She does not mind if they enjoyed their nice offices that did not stink.
But the bounty of the lake is now a mere recollection of the town’s veteran fisherfolk—fishermen and processors alike. “Wala ng laman ang lawa,” (The lake is empty) is a common remark.
Naujan Lake in Oriental Mindoro is the Philippines’ fifth largest freshwater lake. It sits in the northeastern corner of the province, about 32 kilometers from Calapan City, the capital.
October to December used to be the months when the catch was abundant, as water elevation would rise to the levels of the marshlands where fishes could hatch their eggs. It is also common practice during the rainy days for fishermen to drop their gill nets and screen traps right behind their houses, getting some catch for their meals at least. But since 2009, on these same months, the catch had been scarce.
Okyo, one of the fishermen, recalls how he once served as fishing partner with gear owners; taking home some share enough for his family’s daily needs. Today he has two sets of fishing gear, yet his catch can hardly equal the share he used to get before when he did not even own a single one. Fishermen like him complain, saying this is the worst they have experienced in years.
People have varying opinions as to the kinds of fishing gear that may have caused the drastic decline of catch in the lake. They are unanimous, however, in saying with certainty that the cause of this decline is illegal fishing. They refer to it as a kind of “killing the mother goose that lays the golden egg.” They agree that this has got to stop. They just do not know how they can.
It is quite a challenge for the community volunteers in Barangay Bayani to monitor illegal activities in the lake. One such challenge is the lack of surveillance boats. Boat owners would also refuse to lend their vessels for this purpose. People think they would not want their boats to be identified with any arrests. Likewise, relatives of suspects would tip them off, giving the latter time to escape.
When the Naujan Lake was declared a national park by virtue of Proclamation 292 by President Ramon Magsaysay on March 27, 1956, it was assigned an area of 21,655 hectares, inclusive of its own watershed.
In 1961, then President Carlos Garcia reduced this area to 1,966 hectares through Proclamation 793, opening the rest for human use. President Ferdinand Marcos’ Proclamation 335 in 1968 rescinded Garcia’s proclamation to revert the lake’s area to the original declared size. But the surge of human settlement from Laguna, Bicol, and other places had already set in, posing an impending threat to aquatic resources and wildlife in the lake.
Moreover, the sudden increase in the number of fishermen in the area necessitated later issuances that should include provisions for sustainable and equitable fishing. In 1992, RA 7586, otherwise known as the National Integrated Protected Area System (NIPAS) was enacted. It provided for the creation of a management plan for a designated protected area such as the Naujan Lake National Park (NLNP), its administration and management under the Protected Areas and Wildlife Division (PAWD) of Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB), the local policy-making body.
Fishermen are completely aware of the prescribed fishing gears and the adverse consequences of illegal practices. The four municipalities in the area of the national park, namely, Naujan, Victoria, Socorro, and Pola, have representatives to the PAMB, not to mention that the 24 barangays within these municipalities directly located within NLNP have each a representative. PAMB being the governing body of the lake meets regularly to address concerns and formulate policies and guidelines over the management of NLNP. All information related to these policies and guidelines are duly disseminated to their respective communities.
A few accounts of illegal operations had been documented in the lake’s periphery including its outlet, the Butas River. One incident was an almost complete obstruction of the entire passage of the river on a segment in Barangay Dao, which resulted in 17 persons being summoned for investigation. The offense was a violation of RA 8550, otherwise known as The Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998, particularly, Section 55, Non-Obstruction to Navigation and Section 56, Non-Obstruction to Defined Migration Paths. There is a narrow passage to banca. However, it is the provision for “free navigation” of water that was violated.
The Fisheries Code iterates the penalty at Php 2,000.00 to Php 10,000.00 or one month and one day imprisonment to six months. The section, Obstruction of Defined Migration Paths, demands seven to 12 years imprisonment or a fine of Php 50,000.00 to Php 100,000.00, or both, for the offense of obstructing the migratory path of fishes coming to and fro between the lake and Tablas Strait.
Hermogenes Pago of Barangay Bayani, Naujan, recounts this story. In July 2007, his men of 13 were fishing along the shorelines of Victoria when they were spotted by the local patrol police. They were arrested and detained for fishing in the municipal fish sanctuary. He said his men were not aware of such sanctuary. The authorities released them after Pago paid a penalty of Php 10,000.The following month, his men of 17 were fishing on the supposed open area adjacent to where his 13 men were arrested the first time. But the local Bantay Kalikasan volunteers apprehended them on the grounds that the area was being maintained by the municipality of Victoria, i.e., regular spawning with fingerlings. His men were not detained but their catch and fishing gears were confiscated.
Section 81 of the Philippine Fisheries Code is clear about the provisions concerning fish sanctuaries; that there be no commercial fishing activity allowed in the area. Section 96 indicates the penalties of its offense to wit, two to six years imprisonment and/or a fine of Php 2,000 to Php 20,000 and forfeiture of the catch and cancellation of permits or licenses.
The code also states that the municipality shall have jurisdiction over municipal waters (Section 16) which is defined in Section 4 to include streams, lakes and inland bodies of water; that the municipality shall enforce all fishery laws, rules and regulations including valid fishery ordinances (Section 16, paragraph 3); that registry of the fisher-folk shall be maintained in the municipality (Section 19) including their fishing vessels that are color-coded (Section 40); that only registered municipal fisher-folk shall have the privilege over which municipal water on purpose of commercial fishing (Section 17 & 21); that fishing in a municipal water by a person who is not registered therein is illegal unless for the purpose only of daily food sustenance and for leisure (Section 86, paragraphs 2&5). Punishments for this offense are confiscation of catch and a fine of (Php 500). Moreover, Paragraph 2 of the Section 86 states:
Any commercial fishing boat captain or the three (3) highest officers of the boat who commit any of the above prohibited acts (writer’s note: inclusive of paragraph 2) by conviction shall be punished with a fine equivalent to the value of catch or ten thousand pesos (P10,000.00) whichever is higher, and imprisonment of six (6) months, confiscation of catch and fishing gears, and automatic revocation of license.
PCI Jonathan P. Paguio of PNP-Naujan says they face difficulty in catching illegal fishers. He also said they have stopped relying on the community’s help, suspecting that offenders are being tipped off by their relatives and are able to flee.
There was one occasion though that almost gave them positive results. They nearly caught a fisherman using a single stick battery-powered electrofishing device. However, as if to conceal evidences, he deliberately capsized the boat, left it, and swam to shore before the police caught up with him.
To fishermen like the one above, abandoning an investment such as the device mentioned is a better choice than being apprehended, because the code states that even mere possession of an electrofishing device is punishable by imprisonment ranging from six months to two years.
Those caught in the act using this device will get five to 10 years imprisonment and may have an accompanying separate criminal case if the act/s result/s in injury and loss of human life. Even trading with fishes caught by any other illegal means, i.e., poisoning, explosives, etc., shall be punishable by six months to two years imprisonment.
PCF Paguio had long been aware of the underground operations in the lake even before he assumed his position at the Naujan Police Station in 2010. He only has his determination to depend on in bringing illegal fishing to the minimum, if not, its total elimination. In addition, he employs tactics in catching offenders that sometimes surprise them, such as deploying police personnel in the guise of fish vendors on motorcycles. Other policemen disguise themselves as illegal fishermen doing their activities at night, which have proven effective.
Two more local fishermen, Rodrigo Visaya and Ronnie Mayano, gave their accounts of fishing methods being used in the area, which are believed to be depriving most fishermen of their catch.
A biyacos, otherwise known as pukot in marine operations, is an active fishing gear that uses a fine mesh of #7. Witnesses estimate its span at around 500 meters with a width that can go down as deep as 10 meters below. One can easily spot if a biyacos is being used, as it takes 30 to 80 men to operate this active gear. Moreover, bags of catch measure between 250 to 700 kilograms, depending on the season.
According to some witnesses, they had been noticing the use of this method for about three years now, adding that some operators in Barangay Pasi in Soccoro had used it. But many had confirmed two operators in Barangay Malabo in Victoria using the same method.
The use of habing is another fishing method considered illegal. This device is fixed on the lake floor, like a fence, with a height of four feet and with #7 size nets. This illegal fishing device makes a 3-5 kilogram daily catch during regular seasons and 50-100 kilograms of catch during peak seasons.This passive gear can be operated by one person.
Considered the worst among all methods is the battery-operated electrofishing. There are two types of this kind: a double-stick, one-battery operated by one person walking on shallow water and a single-stick with 10 to 12 24-volt batteries in series loaded on the boat. It has a 1 ½ fathom of handle and a fathom stainless rod at the tip. Fishes at 1 ½ meters away from its tip, when exposed to the electricity, wiggle afloat. Witnesses say smaller preys caught through this means get broken bones. This type of electrofishing yields 100 kilograms of catch on the average, and had already been observed in the area for the past 10years.
According to DENR authorities, illegal fishing in Naujan Lake has been under control. However, those in the communities surrounding the area say otherwise. According to many, illegal fishing operations still go on, and that this matter has been some sort of a “hide-and-seek” game between the authorities and underground operators. In addition to this, they say that law enforcers are not properly equipped to do the job. Even the police and the PAMB have to borrow motorized boats from the community, which, on most occasions, the latter are not willing to lend theirs for fear of getting into trouble.
In the 90’s, DENR had one patrol boat. Unfortunately, per a note left by members of the National Peoples Army (NPA), they allegedly burned it down to protect small fishermen. However, to Ricardo R. Natividad, chief of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Division of Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO), the message was meant to mislead and deceive the authorities.
Not far back, the authorities have been granted two patrol boats, under the custody of DENR, for their use in the municipal waters of Pola and for the entire Naujan Lake. However, for lack of budget, these boats were not properly maintained. Natividad laments that PAMB has an annual budget of P60,000, which according to him, can hardly finance its meetings, much more maintain a patrol boat.
According to Hon. Jun S. Bugarin, Naujan Municipal Councilor and the Municipal Representative to PAMB, there is a need to address the many concerns surrounding the protection of the lake, including setting clearer definitions of roles and alignment of the provisions in a number of laws.
Relative to this, Bugarin has presented a proposed Unified Rules and Regulations for Naujan Lake, which was recently drafted for PAMB’s adoption. The document is anchored on related laws for the preservation of the national park, namely RA 7160 (Local Government Code), RA 8550 (Philippine Fisheries Code), etc.
When said proposal is adopted by the respective Sangguniang Bayan of the four municipalities surrounding the lake, after a public hearing, and is signed and approved by the PAMB, the same will be deemed effective 15 days after. Everyone anticipates this so-called next best step to save the Naujan Lake.
In the meantime, Aling Tita has no other option but to endure the effects of illegal fishing, while she presses on her work as a fish processor and vendor at the baraka (open market) in the Naujan and Victoria towns.
On the other hand, Okyo thinks of leaving his place to work at the nearby Calapan City Province. Many others who know no other world than the Naujan Lake would not dare look at other horizons. Their lives have been entwined with this lake and they depend on it for their own survival.
It is now up to the local legislators, together with the local law enforcers, and other concerned agents, to secure Naujan Lake and protect it from total destruction. The future generation will depend on everyone’s action today.