“Kinakabahan kami kasi iyon nalang yong hanapbuhay namin. Nag-iisip kami kung saan pupunta sa oras na mawala ang pagtatahong kasi nasanay na rin kami sa paghahahanap-buhay sa dagat,” mussel fisher (magtatahong) Rhuel Escarial lamented.

[We’re anxious because that’s our only livelihood. We’re thinking about where to go once mussel farming got demolished as we’ve also grown accustomed to making a living at sea]

Rhuel grew up in a family of mussel fishers in Brgy. Sipac-Almacen, Navotas City. The 38-year-old mussel fisher has worried deeply in the more than three-decade livelihood which has been passed on to him by his kin.

Many mussel fishers and fisherfolks received a demolition notice from Navotas City Agriculture Office (CAO) last February 23. CAO said mussel fishers like Rhuel have no permit to operate in the city’s municipal waters, hence they were said to be putting up “illegal infrastructures”.

However, Rhuel’s grandmother Vilma Escarial said their requested permit has remained pending to the Navotas local government unit (LGU) since 2022. Both Rhuel and Vilma have separate boats that they applied for operational permit.

The Navotas LGU and CAO cites the 2008 Supreme Court mandamus as a justification for the demolition, saying that they intend to clean up, rehabilitate, and preserve the coastal waters of Manila Bay

However, militant fishers’ group PAMALAKAYA slammed the Navotas LGU, saying that the notice is deceptive.

“Panlilinlang ang paggamit ng LGU sa mandamus ng Korte Suprema bilang batayan ng pagtanggal sa hanapbuhay ng libu-libong mangingisda sa lungsod, dahil walang nakasaad sa kautusan na ito na baklasin ang mga tahungan at palaisdaan,” said PAMALAKAYA secretary general Salvador France.

[The local government’s use of the Supreme Court’s mandamus as a basis for removing the livelihood of thousands of fishermen in the city is deceptive because the order does not state to dismantle the mussel farms and fishponds]

“Sa katunayan, malaki ang kontribusyon ng mga ito sa produktibidad ng dagat at seguridad sa pagkain ng bansa. Pinauunlad din nito at binibigyang buhay ang dagat at umaambag sa biodiversity ng Manila Bay dahil madalas nagsisilbi itong itlugan at bahay ng mga isda,” France added.

[In fact, they significantly contribute to the productivity of the sea and the food security of the country. They also enhance and enliven the marine environment, contributing to the biodiversity of Manila Bay as they often serve as breeding and sheltering grounds for fish]

France said the demolition intends to make way for the 650-hectare Navotas Bay Coastal Reclamation Project (NBCRP) pushed by the Navotas LGU in partnership with San Miguel Corporation (SMC).

On March 21, PAMALAKAYA along with mussel fishers in barangays Navotas West and Sipac-Almacen held a protest rally in Navotas City Fountain to demand the immediate ceasing of all demolition operations and reclamation projects in Navotas coastal area. The group also demanded compensation to the farms that have been demolished.

How much are mussel fishers losing in the ongoing demolition?

Eight mussel fishers, including Rhuel and his three siblings as well as four other fishers, went fishing in the early morning of March 21.

Rhuel shared that they have only caught eleven (11) tubs, each loaded with about 40 kilos of tahong, compared to their usual daily fish catch of fifteen (15) tubs.

Major markets in Navotas like Agora and Navotas Fisheries Port Complex sell at an average price of mussels ranging from P80 to P120 per kilo. This means, Rhuel and his co-mussel fishers could have earned P35,200 to P52,800 from their catch (P3,200 to P4,800 per tub). However, they have only sold the mussels for P500 per tub or an equivalent of P5,500 or a significant loss of 84.37% to 89.58% of their potential income.

Rhuel lamented that some buyers would purchase mussels at a low price in bulk after reports about the forced destruction of anahaw or tahungan surfaced.

From the earned P5,500, Rhuel shared that they have deducted P1000 for fuel and food expenses; while the remaining P4,500 will be divided among the eight mussel fishers. That day, Rhuel had only earned P562.

Rhuel also stressed that their fish catch has changed since the reclamation began.

“Kinapos kami sa oras gawa ng malabo ang dagat kanina. Dahil iyan sa hinuhukay riyan, nakakadagdag din sa labo ng tubig. Hinahalukay kasi nila yong burak sa ilalim. Kaya sabi ko ang dilim kanina, matagal bago makaahon,” Rhuel said.

[We were short on time due to the rough sea conditions today. The water was murky because of the dredging activities nearby, which added to the turbidity. They were digging up the sediment underneath, so I said it was dark earlier, and it took a while before resurfacing]

“Ang nalalaman ko lang kasi na plano nila ay ang gagawin na tulay tsaka itong San Miguel, itong Paliparan,” he added.

[The only thing I know is their plan to build a bridge and also this San Miguel project, this airport]

In 2020, the NBCRP among several reclamation projects in Manila Bay was granted environmental certificates by the Department of Environment. The Philippine Reclamation Authority dubbed NBCRP as the Southern Gateway to the New Manila International Airport in Bulacan being a self-contained mixed-use community with industrial, commercial, institutional, and residential areas.

The New Manila International Airport, known as the Bulacan International Airport, is a P735.63 billion 2,500-hectare project approved under a concession agreement between SMC and the Department of Transportation. Once built, the airport will be fully owned by the Philippine government under a build-operate-transfer program. In 2021, SMC had also been granted a legislative franchise through the lapsed House Bill No. 7507 which then turned into Republic Act 11506 for the controversial aerotropolis that caused displacement of at least 700 families in Taliptip, Bulacan.

According to Rhuel, this translates to an imminent danger to both livelihoods and the aquatic habitat.

“Iligal daw po ang istruktura namin, eh di ko po alam bakit tinawag na iligal eh simula noong maliit pa ako ay may tahungan na rito. Kaya sabi ko anong iligal dito e hanapbuhay naman ito? Ang alam ko lang na iligal ay dynamite fishing,” Rhuel cried.

[They say our structure is illegal, but I don’t understand why it’s called illegal when we’ve had mussel farms here since I was little. So I ask, what’s illegal about it? This is our livelihood. The only illegal thing I know of is dynamite fishing]

How much does it cost to build a mussel farm? (Plus, essential vocabulary)

In terms alone, there is a clear distinction between bakladan (fish pen) and tahungan (mussel farms).

According to Rhuel, there are fishes caught in a bakladan aside from mussels. He added that the capital needed for bakladan is much larger, perhaps triple that required for mussel farms.

There are two types of mussel farms: one is referred to as “anahaw” or the net between “tulos” or bamboo poles anchored to the seabed, while the other is called “buya” typically seen as floating styrofoams or buoys in seawaters.

These buya are still anchored to the seabed using “bural” or smaller bamboo poles, attached to it was the “serga” which can be made of either nets or ropes.

The anahaw is 12 meters long, while the tulos has a depth of three or five meters. Meanwhile, a “koral” refers to the stretch of anahaw.

Rhuel roams around 100 anahaw. His grandmother-in-law Vilma has 120 anahaw. According to them, their anahaws are typically divided into 30 to 40 tulos.

Vilma said a single tulos needed to construct the anahaw costs around P1,200 to P1,500 per pole. Meanwhile, the “lubis” or netting placed on the anahaw costs between P40 to P50 per meter. In this regard, about P144,000 to P180,000 is needed to build a mussel farm, excluding the one ton of netting is needed with a total cost of P40,000.

There is also a separate cost for the payment for mamboboso or divers to install the tulos and attach the ‘kalatimba’ where the mussels cling. She pays them P170 per installed tulos excluding food expenses.

Vilma said that there are two types of mussel fishers: One group dive underwater while the other remains on the boat as “magyayakyak” or the those hauling up the catch.

Divers would use compressors when harvesting mussels. According to Rhuel, they consume more fuel using compressors compared to operating the boat engine for their daily fishing trips.

Rhuel added that they also bear the brunt of high fuel prices, shelling out P800 to P1,000 for fuel in operating the boat.

Ongoing demolition compels mussel fishers to be vigilant

“Wala na sa normal ang kilos naming mula nong magbackhoe,” Rhuel stressed.

[Our actions haven’t been normal since the backhoe arrived]

“Ang laot namin ngayon, kailangan alas-onse palang nandoon ka na. Sa dagat na kami nagpapalipas ng oras at baka kasi yong backhoe ay nasa lugar na namin,” Rhuel lamented.

[Recently, we need to be there by eleven. We spend our time at sea, as the backhoe might already be in our area]

He said they would leave earlier than the usual fishing trip at around 2:00 or 3:00 AM.

Meanwhile, he also mentioned that they have yet to change their nets and continue to use the old ones. According to him, this has contributed to the decline in mussel catch.

“Noong nakaraang taon pa kami nagpalit at nagdagdag ng lambat. Ngayon hindi na muna kami nagkabit sa dati naming anahaw. Takot kami na baka useless lang at masira nila. Sayang ang gastos,” Rhuel lamented.

[Since last year, we’ve replaced and added nets. But now, we’re hesitant to install them on our old bamboo poles. We’re afraid they might just be rendered useless or damaged. It would be a waste of expenses]

Mussel fishers in Brgy. Sipac-Almacen have recently witnessed yellow and green backhoes destroying their mussel farms. According to Rhuel, one fisher bravely confronted the operators of the backhoe but was only threatened and said to destroy all mussel farms.

“Isang buong taon at kalahati bago mabalik ang naging puhunan diyan. Syempre kahit sabihin na nakakapaglaot sa isang araw, nagagamit din ito sa pang-araw-araw,” Rhuel further cried.

[It takes a year and a half before the investment is recouped. Of course, even though it’s said to yield a catch in a day, it’s also used for daily sustenance]

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