Tagabuli Bay: Helping address fish security in the Davao Region

From the fish cages, bangus are brought to the area where they are to be weighed. (Henrylito Tacio)

By Henrylito D. Tacio 

Sleek and silvery, beloved because of its mild, sweet flesh, and its melt-in-the-mouth belly fat, bangus is a favorite Filipino fish. In Metro Manila and other major cities like Cebu and Davao, the national fish is rated first-class.  

The popularity of bangus can be gleaned in such recipes as bangus en tocho (fried bangus served with a sauce of any of the following: tahure, tokwa, or tausi), bulanglang na bangus (with eggplants, ampalaya, sitao, malunggay, onion, tomatoes, rice washing and bagoong), rellenong bangus (formerly a party dish; now available even in school cafeterias), and bangus lumpia.

 Also known as milkfish, bangus (scientific name: Chanos chanos) is most closely related to carps and catfish.  It resides in the Indian Ocean and across the Pacific Ocean, tending to school around coasts and islands with reefs.  A warm water species, it prefers water temperatures between 20-33 degrees Centigrade. 

The Philippines is one of the top bangus producers in the world, along with Indonesia and Taiwan. Bangus can be raised anywhere in the country. It is farmed in brackishwater, freshwater and marine water.  

The national fish of the Philippines. (Henrylito Tacio)

“Bangus can adopt a wide range of salinity,” says Joylen L. Dominice, aquaculturist II of the Municipal Agriculture Office (MAGRO) of Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur. “They can survive in freshwater, brackishwater, and even obscure marine water.” 

Ideal area

With its brackishwater, the Tagabuli Bay in Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur, is an ideal area for growing bangus. In the 1980s, the National Bangus Breeding Project (NBBP) was established in collaboration with the regional office of the Department of Agriculture, Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center, Japan International Cooperation Agency, and the provincial agriculture office of Digos City.  

In 1992, it became a Research Fishery Outreach Station under the agriculture department. Before long, it was converted into a Regional Fishery Research Development Center. Today, it is established as the Technology Outreach Station for Marine and Brackishwater (TOSMB) of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Research (BFAR). 

The BFAR launched a multispecies hatchery (MSH), which includes the production of bangus fingerlings (called hatirin or garungan) from fry.  

The MSH has several objectives. For one, it addresses the food security in the region by increasing fish production through the distribution of bangus fingerlings to marginal fisherfolks. For another, it aspires to stir the economy by supporting fish cage livelihood projects through the provincial fishery offices (PFO) and city fishery offices (CFO) of the region. Finally, it extends sustenance by distributing wild fry collection paraphernalia (fry dozer) to fisherfolks. 

Right now, the BFAR hatchery has about 1,500 spawning sabalo (mother bangus) and another 500 (about four years old) for sabalo development. In addition, about 3,000 two-year-old bangus are also being managed to become sabalo.

 If MSH cannot supply the demand for fry, it procures from a commercial producer through the procurement process of the government. 

The MSH supplies bangus hatirin to all provinces of Davao region. “We have annual allocation per province but in cases where the beneficiaries from some provinces are not yet ready upon the availability of the fingerlings, we give these to other provinces whose ponds are ready for stocking,” explains Vilma M. Montojo, senior aquaculturist of the TOSMB.

All the municipalities of Davao region receive bangus hatirin once a year. “The requests should come from the local government units. These are validated by the PFOs and TOSMB staff,” says Montojo.  

Fish cages

Traditionally, bangus was cultured in ponds and pens. In 2000, TOSMB launched the bangus marine fish cage project, where fishers are trained in an alternative method of rearing the fish to a marketable size. The floating fish enclosures are made of synthetic net wire/bamboo screen or other materials set in the form of inverted mosquito net (hapa type).

From the fish cages, bangus are brought to the area where they are to be weighed. (Henrylito Tacio)

The project was conceptualized with the community managing it. When they heard of the project, some fishers formed an organization as it was one of the requirements. Most members were engaged in multiple economic activities and they were not totally dependent on their fishing activities for generating income. Some members had experience with fish cage culture as they had worked as caretakers for private fish cage operators. 

Residents living the community who joined the cooperative were fishers using motorized and non-motorized fishing boats, seaweed farmers, fish vendors, employees, traders, and those engaged in other minor income generating activities like swine raising and mat weaving.

In support of the bangus culture project, the wives of the members of the cooperatives were trained on bangus processing such as bangus deboning and marinating bangus.

 Unfortunately, the project was not sustainable. An increasing cost of fingerlings and feed made it unprofitable to continue. “Based on the experience, it seems the operation of a marine fish cage project is best operated as a family enterprise and not as a people-oriented project,” the study showed.

 That is what the community is doing these days. The more than 500 fish cages (with a dimension of 10 meters by 10 meters by 5 meters) operating in the area are privately owned by people mostly from the barangay although there some private investors who are from within Davao region.

 Most of them acquire their bangus fingerlings for stocking from private nursery operators in nearby areas. They also buy fingerlings from fishery nurseries in Tagum and Malita. There are also operators who are supplied by the Finfish Hatcheries, Inc. (FHI), the first and largest commercial bangus fry hatchery in the country. 

 Only 6.62 hectares of the 80 hectares in Tagabuli Bay is utilized for bangus production. As the bay is under Sta. Cruz, the local government is trying to convert it into Tagabuli Bay Mariculture Park. “Presently, the Sangguniang Bayan is in the process of formulating the mariculture ordinance,” Dominice says.  

Bangus farming

 For a very long time, the Philippine aquaculture industry was virtually synonymous with bangus culture as it was introduced into the country 400 to 600 years ago. “The backbone of Philippine aquaculture” is how bangus farming has been regarded by most fishery experts.

 In the past, traditional feeding practices for bangus grown-out ponds production have consisted of natural food (lablab) or a combination of phytoplankton and macroalgae encouraged by fertilization. In the 1980s, special commercial feeds for bangus were developed and became almost exclusively used. 

 At the Tagabuli Bay fish cages, operators are giving bangus commercial feeds daily. About 70% of the operation goes to commercial feeds, purchase of fingerlings, and salary of those maintaining the fish cages. “The bulk of expenses comes from feeds,” Montojo says.

 The stocking density is from 10,000 to 12,000 fingerlings. From this, they harvest 4-5 tons per cropping. The culture period is 5-6 months although in some instances it may go up to seven months. “The culture period becomes higher if they stock the cages with more than what is being recommended,” Montojo says.

 Selective harvesting is practiced; only uniformly grown bangus from the cages are harvested using seine or gillnets, retaining the undersize fish and harvesting only the commercial sized stocks, with an average body weight of 250 grams or larger.

 Harvesting is done twice daily; one in the morning and another in the afternoon. They harvest only what is needed by the buyers (viajedors, those who travel in various parts of the country and compradors or those who buy in bulk and supply them to retailers). About 5 tons to 15 tons are harvested each day. 

Harvesting is done twice: one in the morning and another in the afternoon. (Henrylito Tacio)

The bangus harvested are sold in the local market and nearby provinces. The viajedors, however, bring them to such areas as Cagayan de Oro, Bukidnon, Surigao, Tacloban, Cebu, Dumaguete and Iloilo. 

Sizes of bangus matter. Those weighing 600 grams to 1.2 kilograms per piece are sold for export. If it weighs 599 and below, it is sold for local consumption. 

 Prices also differ. For export, the farm-gate price is P160 to P170 per kilogram. For locals, the price for 5 pieces for two kilograms is P150 while those for 3 pieces for one kilogram is P145. 

 Mangrove forests 

Tagabuli is one of the coastal areas in Sta. Cruz where the ecologically-fragile mangroves thrive. The municipality has around 92 hectares of mangrove forest that also spans 9 other coastal barangays: Bato, Tuban, Zone IV, Zone III, Zone II, Zone I, Astorga, Darong, and Inawayan. 

Dr. Jurgenne H. Primavera, who spent her time studying mangroves, found out conversion of mangrove areas to brackishwater fishponds as one of the major culprits. This is the reason why the fishery office of Sta. Cruz is trying to stop that from happening in Tagabuli Bay.  

Aside from being breeding grounds for fishes, mangroves also serve as the first line of defense against monsoon waves and storm surge. In addition, they help fight climate change. Studies show they extract carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their roots, trunks, and leaves. 

 Pundits call this process biological carbon sequestration. Mangroves can store four to five times as much carbon as upland forests. So much so the local government initiated the 

Tagabuli Mangrove Protected Area. “We intend to increase the mangrove areas instead of cutting them down,” said Dominice. 

The Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) plants mangroves in sites where mangroves are growing. Those who undergo on-the-job training at the BFAR office are also required to bag mangrove seedlings which can be used for planting.  

Tourism activities

 Aside from providing sustainable livelihood opportunities and income generating projects for the people living in barangay Tagabuli, the area where fish cages abound is also part of the tourism activities of the municipality. 

“(It) is a big help to the tourism industry because it is part of the highlight route of our seascape tour. As our guests and visitors navigate, they get a glimpse of how fishers manage the fish cages,” explained Julius Paner, the municipal tourism officer. 

Last February, the Tagabuli Bay Floating Cottage was opened to the public. Ideal for small group meetings, gatherings and picnics, it is a solar-powered cottage which can accommodate 30-40 persons.  

Among the activities that could be done include kayaking inside the mangrove forest, tours to Secret Island and fish cages, snorkelling, birdwatching and swimming. 

Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

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