Dagupan Bangus: Today’s Boon, Tomorrow’s Bane?

Bangus (milkfish) has given fame to Dagupan – and income to thousands of families and vendors. This may all change when a big fish processing plant rises in the city.


DAGUPAN CITY, Pangasinan (212 kms north of Manila) ? No town beats Dagupan, one of the country’s oldest cities, when it comes to fishing. Bangus (milkfish) won’t be the Philippines’ national fish if it were not for this city: Dagupan, a commercial and educational city located in Pangasinan’s western coast, has the best bangus in this part of the world. And bangus brought fame to Dagupan after beating Peru with the longest barbecue title in the Guinness Book of World Records three years back.

Talk of bangus, however, and you talk of thousands of families here making a living from this industry. Commercial fishing trade has flourished with families engaged in the processing of bangus, or deboning. Wonder how many children are raised and brought to school – and even opulence to a few – because of this

The ugly side of it all, however, is that soon many small processors and vendors who rely on this trade may find themselves without livelihood if a government plan to build a giant processing plant for bangus export gets underway.

Foreigners who visit this city sometimes cannot believe their ears after hearing of a “boneless” bangus, which simply and more accurately means “deboned.” To a former overseas Filipino worker, however, it is deboned fish that somehow brought her some fortune.

After trying other businesses and failing, Fe Vidal settled for selling deboned bangus. She struck a gold mine. Back in 1994 and with only P500 ($10), Fe began deboning 20 pieces of bangus and marinating them in vinegar mixed with salt, garlic and pepper. She then sold the deboned bangus to close friends. There was no turning back.

Soon, commuters and foreign tourists would stop by her store, attracted by a streamer hung along Dagupan’s highway, and buy her deboned bangus as they drive out of the city. Calling cards helped boost her business with customers from as far as the north and even Metro Manila ordering her products.

With simple marinating, Dagupan’s “boneless” bangus remains a hit. “Masarap ang bangus na galing sa Dagupan siguro dahil sa quality ng tubig na fresh water,” Fe says, comparing Dagupan bangus with that in other provinces which she says tastes bland.

Processing house

Fe, now 45, has her small bangus processing house, “CBN Bonuan Boneless Bangus” in Bagong Barrio, Bonuan Gueset. Her products are among the favorites of both local residents and tourists during the city’s Bangus Festival in April. She also sells lumpiang bangus, bangus belly, bangus sisig, and daing.

Among Fe’s workers, Princess Ballesteros is the fastest deboner. Ballesteros started deboning the national fish when she was still in Grade 4. She was then earning P50 ($1) for working from 5-7 p.m. everyday. Today at 17, Princess can work on five to seven bangus pieces in a minute.

Up to 35 banyera (raw fish containers) of bangus are deboned everyday at Fe’s processing house. With this volume, a worker could earn from P300 to P500 ($10) a day. Fe now has 32 workers whose earnings give sustenance to their families.

Unlike Fe, Alma Vidal does not have her own processing house or workers to keep her small business. Every day, Alma, cousin of Fe’s husband, waits for a free supply of bones removed from bangus fishes processed at Fe’s unit. Using a spoon, the 46-year old woman patiently removes fish meat crumbs while sitting on a half-foot wooden chair for about four hours. After doing this for seven years, she suffers pains in her arms, neck and lower back.

At P40 per kilo, Alma earns about P200 ($4)daily. This income that supports five children: the eldest who is a construction worker and four others who are in school.

Alma’s family saves on food by using scrapped fish meat ingeniously to cook lumpia, torta, or relyenong bangus.

No bangus leftover goes to waste. When done with scrapping, the fish bones will be thrown to the fish pens behind their community for feed.

The ‘Big One’

Every year in April, Dagupan celebrates the Bangus Festival which is highlighted by the “Kalutan ed Dagupan,” a big barbecue party. It is also the Guinness Book of World Records’ current title holder for the longest barbeque when it grilled 24,000 bangus fishes stretching to 1,007 meter in May 2003. Peru used to hold the record in 1999 for its 613-meter long barbeque.

With bangus as a big industry, Dagupan is one of 33 cities in the country involved in the City Development Strategies (CDS) program in Asia that is supported by the World Bank. The projects in this city are Flood Control Mitigating Project, Bangus Processing Plant and construction of a three-storey public market.

Controversy surfaced in 2004 with a planned demolition in Bagong Barrio to give way to the bangus processing plant.

The issue heated up when the city government dismantled alleged illegal fish pens, particularly those within so-called navigational lanes along Calmay and Pantal rivers. In the absence of resettlement sites, several small fishermen have rebuilt their fishpens.

Meanwhile, some small processors fear that they might lose their small businesses once the Big One takes over.

Alma loathes the day when that happens. “Baka wala na ‘kong makuhanan ng libreng tinik,” Alma said, thinking that every part of the bangus in the processing plant would be used up or for sale even the bones where she gets her earnings.

Her fear is so simple yet, “ito ang kabuhayan ko,” she said, while scrapping whatever is left on the thin bangus bone in her hands. Bulatlat

Note: Peso-dollar conversion is based on an exchange rate of P50.010 per US dollar.

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