To catch or not to catch | Gubat residents suffer from mud crab ban

October 20, 2023

The innovation of raising crablets in Gubat, Sorsogon is caught in the middle of a government ban, serving as a litmus test for local officials on how to support community-based ventures.


GUBAT, Sorsogon — Three men were dipping bintol (lift nets) in the muddy pond using long bamboo handles. They tried several times with bait danggit (rabbitfish) until catching a coin-size mangrove crab or Scylla serrata, commonly known as mud crab.

“There’s literally nothing now,” Robert Encinares told Bulatlat during a visit in mid-August to his backyard fishponds which they call nursery ponds in the coastal barangay of Cota na Daco.

Encinares is part of Save Gubat Bay Movement (SGBM), the organization formed by different sectors of Gubat’s mud crab industry during the global pandemic to raise awareness of the town’s one-of-its-kind mud crab raising practice and how the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources’ (BFAR’s) Fisheries Administrative Order (FAO) 264 is affecting it, among others.

He blames the FAO 264 for the current scarcity of crablets in his nursery ponds, as it requires collecting and sale of crablets with 5-cm shell width (the diameter of a five-peso coin) — a far larger size than what they’re used to buying, growing and selling.

In Gubat, they grow crablets of sizes 10 mm to 25 mm (about the size of a ten-centavo and a one-peso coin, respectively) within one-and-a-half months. He sells these to crablet wholesalers (traders/agents), who then sell them to aquaculture owners around the country for fattening before being sold for export or local consumption once mature.

The Philippines is one of the world’s leading producers of mangrove crab, with production volume growing from 15,794 tons valued at P4.7 billion in 2013 to 23,111 tons valued at P11.7 billion in 2021.

While aquaculture accounts for the majority of production, seedstocks are sourced indiscriminately from the wild, prompting BFAR to issue FAO 264 in 2020. It aims to conserve mangrove crabs by prohibiting the capture of less than 5-cm shell sizes in the wild, as well as of gravid crabs which can lay 1 million to 6 million eggs, while exempting hatcheries.

Alien. (Photo by Mavic Conde/Bulatlat)

However, the group said that their method is not exploitative because they do not encourage the sale of langaw-langaw (fly-size crablets of 5 mm shell size) to wholesalers, as is common in the country.

Rather, they raise mud crab seedstocks (megalopa) bought from gatherers who refer to it as “alien” to one-peso coin size crablets in nursery ponds to ensure consistent stocks, the majority of which would have died in the wild due to predators or pollution. This, too, provides better transit survivability and value.

As a community-based practice that has been going on for about five decades, the group said that it has significantly contributed to Gubat’s average (albeit conservative estimate) P20-million crablet trade industry per year, a much higher revenue from its marketable crab.

Encinares said that his income used to be so good, especially at times when one pond alone could double his capital in one nursery cycle, allowing him to provide for his family’s food and school needs, as well as buy a piece of land and build a house on it.

He is now the one borrowing money for capital from lenders. Worse, he is dealing with uncertainty because their business has suddenly become illegal. “My goods were once confiscated by the local police and BFAR.”

Allan Espallardo wants the fishponds left unmaintained by some nursery pond operators because of lack of income as a result of the ban reverted back to mangrove sites, since these used to be swamps.
(Photo by Mavic Conde/Bulatlat)

From blessing to curse

The gatherers who also make up the mud crab industry in Gubat are as much as affected.
Ar’ar Doncillo, a mother and “alien” gatherer, said that they have been living in fear since they know their fishnets could be confiscated any time.

She said that they were traumatized because they never returned it, and that wives were crying while others were trembling when they saw their husbands caught by the police.

Fear forced another “alien” gatherer, Asuncion, to temporarily keep her duyan-duyan, the fine fishnet they replaced for sudsud for catching “alien” because the latter harms seagrass beds but is allowed in rivers. “Imagine how terrible it is for a brand new duyan-duyan that you purchased with credit gets confiscated.”

Their other source of income is seagrass gleaning for shell foods, which they may sell for P120 to P180 pesos, not much considering the rising price of essential items like rice, according to the mothers who occasionally had to forgo it for house chores.

ALIEN GATHERERS. These backyard fishponds used to be abandoned dump sites. (Photo by Mavic Conde/Bulatlat)

They added that in the past, their families can afford simple eat outs in Sorsogon City on weekends, spend on self-pampering and still have something to set aside or lend to others. At present, they are worried about where to get cash for the start of the school year.

“We didn’t know how we were able to deal with all these,” said another gatherer Lorna Gallardo, “but what we do know is that we can’t just be silent about our struggles.”

The price of megalopa can range from P1 to P13 pesos per piece but it can also fall to 25 centavos to 50 centavos. Those who are unable to spend three to four hours in the cold, night sea can still make money by scraping duyan-duyan for alien leftovers.

(Photo by Mavic Conde/Bulatlat)

There are instances when one gatherer can earn P5,000 pesos or higher in just one night. According to fellow gatherer Salvador Fidellaga, this is a big deal for families belonging to the poorest of the poor whose usual problems are lack of food and money for medical needs.

He claimed that because people have money to spend, everyone benefits, even sari-sari store owners and tricycle drivers. If non-local fishers caught a gravid crab, they would buy it and release it to their temporary sanctuary, just as pond owners do to help gravid crabs survive cannibalism.

They do not need to go around to sell it like shells, as well as go to farmers to exchange it for rice, because they have a sure buyer. Peak season is from December to June.

“That’s how sustainable this income source was, until the police started raiding us,” Doncillo said with a sigh.

Sharing of conservation duty

With the country requiring 36-45 million crablets from the wild each year, “alien” gatherer Ernie Gallardo feels that wholesale buyers have a duty too, as they set the demand, especially for langaw-langaw.

Gallardo said that owners of large fishponds with 50,000-capacity for growing out crablets would choose to acquire langaw-langaw because it is cheaper at P6 pesos than coin-size items which cost P6 to P42 pesos each, even if 50 percent of the former do not survive in the transit.

Because of the current lack of produce from nursery pond operators like Encinares’, wholesalers have more leeway in lowering the buying price for langaw-langaw. These are likely to encourage poaching, both for those who do not use the coin-size method and for those who do because the ban pushed them to engage in illicit trade.

Similarly, Gallardo does not want nursery pond owners to purchase langaw-langaw when “aliens” are rare during lean season because, according to him, these have already survived predators and can grow mature in the wild. During such times, gatherers do construction work.

Gubat distributes crablets to more than 40 towns and cities in the Philippines, with Central Luzon and Western Mindanao receiving more than 92 percent of its crablets, according to a study by RARE Philippines.

The same study said that accounting for market dynamics can aid conservation efforts and result in an improved mangrove crab industry — from registration and licensing of all mangrove crab value chain actors, inventory of fish pond production and improving market knowledge for value chain actors and community.

Allan Espallardo, the SGBM leader and a nursery pond operator who had to return to a call center job due to the ban that was imposed during the pandemic, said that the consolidation of the sectors involved in the mud crab industry in Gubat is a much-needed measure.

He stressed that tariff is necessary to protect gatherers, local consolidators and nursery operators from uncertain pricing markets. This also reduces the likelihood of traders imposing unfair pricing competition.

“The nursery pond operators are the most vulnerable of the four sectors. They must maintain their ponds, purchase feed and wait 30 days to make an income, as opposed to agents who control the pricing and gatherers who can earn immediately,” Espallardo said.

Growing 5-peso coin sizes in their small ponds would be more expensive and less productive due to cannibalism. He noted that removing their claws at this point for shipping would make it disproportionate and decrease the export worth.

(Photo by Mavic Conde/Bulatlat)

Response of local government

Aside from market-related concerns, mangrove deforestation, pollution from upland quarries and the unnecessary construction of a road along their coastlines alter the mud crabs’ natural habitat. These then interfere with their life cycles which involve movements from the sea to the coastline and to brackish water rivers and back.

Espallardo cited high cost, low megalopa survival rate and usage of unregulated drugs for disease prevention as current hatchery challenges.

However, FAO 264 still supports what Sorsogon’s first district representative Bernadette Escudero wants for Gubat which may be ironic given that the town can generate enough supply from natural sources.

“When we say supply [from natural sources], we mean Gubat can provide for an order of 5,000 or 10,000 coin-size crablets for a day because of our innovation, whereas most parts of the country can only provide langaw-langaw, if not small crabs from hatcheries,” he said.

This sustainable approach is also observed in an official report by BFAR-National Office, which had a dialog with the group in late August. BFAR is considering updating FAO 264 based on this unique practice, according to Espallardo.

Meanwhile, affected residents called on their local government leaders to take immediate action to restore their livelihoods.

“Let us get back to our main livelihood, which the majority of us rely on,” Encinares said.

On September 21, however, another incident of confiscation of mud crab fishnets was reported without the police or coast guard producing a search warrant. (DAA, JJE) 

The post To catch or not to catch | Gubat residents suffer from mud crab ban appeared first on AlterMidya.

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