Caloy Taguinod, 67 years old and a resident of Lagum, Penablanca used to bring dried eels (Anguilla spp.) to his relatives in Tuguegarao City as gifts during special occasions.
Those trips are now few and in between after he realized the abundance of the fish species these days is not as much as when he was younger.
He is now disturbed.
What Caloy didn’t know is that the eels he has been gathering all those years is the Philippine mottled eel (Anguilla luzonensis) described by Shun Watanabe, Jun Aoyama and Katsumi Tsakamoto and introduced to the world only in 2009. Then, it was the latest freshwater Anguilla discovery found along the Pinacanauan River in Luzon (that explains the epithet) and its outstretched areas.
Watanabe and company described the fish as an Anguilla endemic eel species which spend most of their lives in freshwater but migrate to the ocean to breed.
Called Siging in the Ibanag (Iloco Igat) language, these fish species under Anguillidae family and genus Anguilla are now the focus of an international project geared towards its conservation and protection in Cagayan Valley.
As early as five years ago, then Director Jovita Ayson of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources has warned the region of a possible extinction of at least three fish species under this genus namely Anguilla marmorata, Anguilla pacifica and Anguilla celebenensis.
She said the premature harvest of elvers (eel fry) in Cagayan less than a decade ago has been the primary cause for the depletion of the eel species.
During those years, there was a sudden market demand from Manila and elsewhere in the country which forced Cagayanos, even non-farmers, to gather the elvers 24/7. A kilo of elvers were sold at a staggering price of Php17,000 – Php28,000 per kilo for Manila.
The middle men bought them from fishers for only Ph10,000. Foreign buyers settled for Php 45,000, according to un official report. The situation alarmed BFAR and other conservationist groups.
A kilo of elvers is made up of around 5,000 to 6,000 pieces while a kilo of full grown eel is fetch at a thousand pesos. Known for their unconfirmed aphrodisiac properties, they thrive in marine, coastal, brackish and fresh bodies of water.
BFAR likewise reported that from 20 metric tons harvest in 2002, it dramatically leaped to 160,000 metric tons in 2010.
“Our eels might face the present situation of another species, the ludong (Cestraeus plicatilis),” Ayson said.
Caloy boasted that in the 1980s, a single siging can weigh up to almost three kilos. (Rizal Vice-Mayor Joel Ruma reported Malauegs can still catch five kilos per fish). Unfortunately, Caloy admits that overfishing is now taking a toll on the biodiversity equation of the area.
He remembers himself and the rest of the fishermen from Penablanca who fetch their fresh caught or dried eels either door to door or in the local markets. They don’t do it anymore.
However, maybe the Creator loves the eels in Cagayan that an international group entered the conservation picture in the province a few years ago. Hope springs eternal even in the lives of eels.
Dr. Matthew Gollock, team leader of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), a non-government agency in the United Kingdom said his agency has signed a memorandum of understanding with BFAR for a project which ‘intends to develop an eel recovery program through the overarching aim of securing sustainable eel population and freshwater habitat, and associated equitable fisheries.”
Gollock have been doing the rounds of communities in the region, particularly in the municipalities of Abulug, Aparri and Penablanca for the last two years as part of the agreement.
The Philippines is home to five of the known 16 Anguilla species in the world.
The entry of ZSL is rather a milestone in Cagayan’s conservation efforts.
For the ordinary Cagayano and the rest of indigenous peoples in Asia, Anguilla is as common as the Nile tilapia which thrives in freshwater areas all over the province.
Like the rest of the other fisheries stakeholders, Caloy said he welcomed the project which focuses on the utilization of eels as flagship species for freshwater resource conservation in the country.
Funded by Darwin Initiatives of the United Kingdom government, the project grants scheme that helps protect biodiversity and the natural environment through locally-based projects worldwide.
“It’s a three -year project which will end in the presentation of a proposal to the UK government,” Gollock, in an earlier interview, volunteered.
He reported the members of those communities and their local government units his team visited have been cooperative and are willing to assist ZSL in the collection of data relevant to the project.
“I was ecstatic over the program as it will boost the national and local eel conservation initiatives run by BFAR in recent years,” BFAR Region 2 Director Milagros Morales said.
That would include the export ban for juvenile eels not exceeding 15 centimeters as stipulated in the AO No. 242 and the eel stock enhancement program in the region since 2008.
Meanwhile, the DENR through its Biodiversity Management Bureau and the Protected Areas Wildlife Coastal Zone Management Services have been providing support and technical assistance relating to biodiversity conservation and protected areas.
“I have a gut feel that this program will succeed for generations to come,” Morales said.
Caloy prays the success will come in his life time, if not, for his children and his children’s children.
Meanwhile, DOST Director Sancho Mabborang said his agency has likewise established a research center for eels in one of the campuses of Isabela State University.
That would be another story for an over-fished species.