MANILA, September 23, 2003  (STAR) By Nestor F. Etolle  - The tasty Batangas tilapia may soon vanish as the province’s fish breeders are now prohibited from using the Pansipit River for the "conditioning" of tilapia fingerlings.

Tilapia breeding is the main source of livelihood of the people in the towns of Agoncillo, Lemery, Taal and San Nicolas in Batangas. The eight-kilometer Pansipit River flows through these towns before emptying into the sea.

The swift-moving current of the Pansipit River is ideal for spawning of mature tilapia as well as for "conditioning" of its fingerlings before they are transferred to fish ponds.

Fish breeders put up "hapa," a net-enclosed cage measuring two meters by six meters, on the river bank during the spawning and conditioning of tilapia.

But lately the Batangas provincial government issued notices to the towns’ fish breeders to dismantle their hapa, salambaw, fish cages and fish traps since the Pansipit River has been nominated for the Gawad Galing Pook Awards of the Department of Tourism.

Violators face fines ranging from P50,000 to P100,000 plus imprisonment of from seven to 12 years under Republic Act 8550.

"Those obstructions would affect our chance for the Gawad Galing Pook Awards," Batangas Gov. Hermilando Mandanas said in separate letters to Mayors Nemesio de Sagun and Napoleon Arceo of the municipalities of Agoncillo and San Nicolas, respectively, two towns whose main source of livelihood is tilapia breeding.

Mandanas described the award as "very valuable" as it could help pave the way for the further development of the Pansipit River area which would benefit the people around the river.

Affected breeders protested, saying the order would eventually "kill their only source of livelihood." They claimed that if they are not allowed to erect structures in the river such as hapa, their fingerlings will die.

"Ang hirap dito sa mga opisyales namin puro papogi lang. Mas pinili pa nila na manalo ng award pero gutom naman ang tiyan ng mga mamamayan (Our public officials are more concerned about their political stock. They prefer to run after an award at the cost of their constituents going hungry)," the people chorused.

Crisostomo Bathan, a long-time tilapia breeder, said he would lose his P100,000 capital if the order would be strictly implemented.

Some 120 breeders from Agoncillo and San Nicolas towns have conducted rallies and appealed to their local leaders to allow them the use of at least two meters by four meters near the river bank to put up hapa only for conditioning of the fingerlings.

They even proposed that after the conditioning which normally takes one to three days, the hapa would be dismantled. They also proposed to police their ranks and impose disciplinary actions against those who would refuse to dismantle their structures.

Ramon Matienzo, president of the Association of Barangay Captains, however said the preservation of Pansipit River has been the concern of the National Government since 1992 with the enactment of Provincial Ordinance No. 4 which prohibits man-made structures along the entire stretch of the river.

Even President Fidel Ramos issued Presidential Decree 296 which banned the construction of fish cages in the Pansipit River. "President Ramos even personally led in the dismantling of fish cages in the river when he visited Batangas in 1994," Matienzo said.

In 1998, in the midst of campaign for presidential and local elections, authorities became lax in the enforcement of the prohibition which saw the mushrooming of fish cages in the river, according to Matienzo.

Batangas folk said the government is taking away their "only" means of livelihood without providing them an alternative to earn.

The STAR learned the local government of Agoncillo gave only three heads of cow for fattening to some 70 families who depend on fish breeding.

Contrasting views

San Nicolas Mayor Napoleon Arceo, who said he was once the spokesman of tilapia breeders before he was elected to office, told The STAR he will continue to allow his constituents to use the Pansipit River for conditioning of fingerlings, provided it will only occupy a small portion of the riverbank.

Arceo, stressed though, that fish cages should never be built in the river. He also told his constituents who visited him at his office that hapas should be immediately dismantled right after the conditioning stage.

He assured his people that other means of livelihood such as cattle fattening, Gulayan sa Barangay and broiler production will be offered to affected fish breeders to compensate for the loss of their livelihood.

However, Agoncillo Mayor Nemesio de Sagun expressed surprise at the defiant stand of his colleague against the directive of Gov. Mandanas. "I don’t know his motive for going against the order of our governor. I hope his pronouncement is not meant only to get votes from his constituents. He is going against the laws and ordinance of the province," De Sagun commented.

For his part, Mandanas said he will personally look if the hapas can be considered as river obstructions before making a decision on the appeal of the tilapia breeders.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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