By MAVIC CONDE
PRIETO DIAZ, Sorsogon – Seagrass is often a casualty of mangrove rehabilitation programs in the Philippines.
This coastal town in Sorsogon province is no exception. It has the Bicol region’s largest mangrove ecosystem at 1,034 hectares as a result of decades of community management backed by its local governments and other agencies.
“Seagrasses should also be protected from degradation and conversion to other ecosystems (like mangrove forests). So, there should be no mangrove planting on seagrass beds,” Rona Joy Loma of Zoological Society London–Philippines (an organization that conducts seagrass protection initiatives in the country) said in an email.
Seagrasses are the only marine flowering plants which as underwater meadows serve as significant nurseries and carbon sinks. They also serve as sources of food and income, as well as natural barriers for coastal people against erosion and rising sea levels.
Despite having some of the most diverse seagrasses with 18 species, the Philippines has seen a 30-percent to 50-percent loss due to destructive fishing methods, altered seascapes and extreme weather and climate events.
Loma said that the livelihood in Prieto Diaz is dependent on rabbitfish, locally known as danggit, caught in the seagrass beds adjacent to the mangrove forest.
“We have a lot of danggit because they feed on seagrass which in this town is 800 hectares wide,” resident Levi Destura told Bulatlat.
Destura is a member of the Agta Tabagnon Indigenous Council. The latter’s members were among the first few volunteer residents to help in this town’s mangrove replanting program in the early 1990s when its mangrove area was depleted due to charcoal production.
By the mid-1970s, the country already lost a large portion of its mangrove cover due to fishpond conversion, a national program promoted by then-President Ferdinand Marcos Sr.
Today, its one unforeseen impact is the planting of mangroves in seafront areas where seagrass beds thrive because these have less tenurial issues.
Leased fishponds are in the middle to upper intertidal areas which, according to experts, are best for mangrove plantations because these are not 30 percent tidally inundated most of the time. Besides, experts said that seafront areas are battered by strong winds and waves.
The seagrass-dependent danggit in Prieto Diaz has become a main source of income, particularly for mothers.
Riza Paliok, 44, who has five children is one of them. “I used to sew shell crafts that paid me P20 ($0.30) per dozen,” she said, adding that she can now earn P350 pesos daily or more depending on how quickly she can gut and debone a kilo of danggit.
A kilo of deboned danggit costs P7 pesos to P8 pesos (if one processes more than 35 kilos) and a kilo of scrubbed danggit costs another P5 pesos.
She also works as a kitchen help at events conducted in the function hall of the people’s organization Seagrass, Mangrove, Corals Eco-Developers, Inc. (SEAMANCOR). The latter monitors the mangrove area under a stewardship agreement with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the local government of Prieto Diaz.
Some of her coworkers like Ruth Enaje occasionally come to work with their husband. Compared to gutting and deboning 40 kilos of danggit alone, Enaje said that she and her spouse can do as much as 50 to 75 kilos.
The fastest couple, unable to attend the interview, can do up to 80 kilos. There were only three workers at the time because of rough seas during the first quarter of the year, unlike on peak seasons where there was a long table of workers.
A reliable livelihood
Non-SEAMANCOR members, including a couple who have been mandadanggit for as long as they can remember, benefit from danggit processing training as well. According to Thelma and William Donor, they are able to send their 12 children to school, as well as provide livelihood for six neighbors who earn P250 pesos daily.
Because they manage five 350-meter-long fish pens, they do not buy fresh danggit. Their piggery also helps, especially when they need to spend money on post-typhoon repair which may cost up to P25,000 pesos for every ruined fish pen. The pair expects that the danggit catch is insufficient during habagat season which lasts from June to September.
Due to an issue with the water treatment facility, the association of danggit processors that relied on a shared facility discontinued operations.
“The local doctor declared it a health hazard because of the foul odor from accumulated fish gut waste,” Charito Amor Lagadia of the Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (MENRO) told Bulatlat.
She added that the mayor is considering sponsoring its repair with money awarded to the local government for exemplary mangrove protection initiatives under the tenure of previous local chief executives.
Danggit is so common in this town that almost no one buys it at the fish market. That is, until a typhoon struck and there were so many danggit catches from broken fish pens. It pushed then-Mayor and current Board Member Benito Doma to consider training women in the processing of danggit into dried fish.
“A styro box with a capacity of 40 kilos of fresh small-and-medium danggit was only 800 pesos when I first tried processing danggit in 2007, but it’s now tripled at P2400,” SEAMANCOR president Joselito Domdom Jr said in a phone interview.
But the local chief executive’s lack of authority to reclaim Abandoned, Undeveloped, and Underutilized (AUU) fishponds — under the jurisdictions of the DENR and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) — makes community leaders like Domdom lament missed opportunities.
“Who will benefit when those areas are reclaimed and replanted with mangroves? It’s us, the residents of Prieto Diaz,” he said.
Loma added that based on satellite images, there are abandoned fishponds with regenerants behind the mangrove forest in Prieto Diaz. “With the increasing intensity and frequency of typhoons brought about by the climate crisis, reversion of these ponds will strengthen the natural defense of the municipality, especially from storm surges.”
Moreover, with 19 of its 23 barangays along the coast, the role of protected seagrass is as crucial as mangroves for this town in a battered-typhoon province, much alone worsening typhoons in the face of climate crisis. (JJE, DAA)