Keeping Davao City restos alive with live grouper

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/25 May) — The recent surge in visitors coming to Davao as a result of Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s impending ascension to the presidency has benefited many local businesses, including restaurants. While the city has plenty to offer in terms of culinary variety, a popular go-to for tourists are those serving fresh seafood, be it Davao’s famed tuna panga or the more conventional choices of freshly harvested fish, prawns, and crabs.

Davao has around a dozen restaurants specializing in live seafood, especially crabs, lobsters, and the ubiquitous grouper (much derided by Mayor Digong for being named after the first Philippine hero, Lapu-lapu). It is a special treat for diners to be able to choose his fish of choice from the restaurant’s aquarium and have it cooked to his preference, assured of its freshness and quality. On regular days, the city consumes around 900 kilos of live grouper a week (that’s almost a ton on a weekly basis!). So, when local restaurateurs were faced with a sudden increase in patronage from the diaspora of well-wishers, many of whom are people of import and bringing along their respective entourages, the usual inventory of live seafood swimming in their tanks was definitely not going to cut it.

25live_grouper2Although restaurant owners tend to be recalcitrant when it comes to revealing actual sales figures, they do acknowledge the surge in people coming in, including patronage from several VIPs, who, naturally, would be ordering the best the place has to offer.

Lauro Tito Ilagan, one of the restaurants’ source for their live grouper supply, estimates that orders for live grouper increased by around 30 percent, based on his own transactions with them. “But that’s just for lapu-lapu,” he admits, “I can’t speak for other popular fare, like crabs and lobster, but whenever they call, they always ask if I’m also selling any of these other stuff.”

Unfortunately, he can’t. Ilagan has been known exclusively as a grouper farmer, having been partly responsible for developing the technology for grouper farming in the Philippines over the years and helping in teaching the practice to municipal fisherfolk all over the country. “Not a lot of consumers are aware that the lapu-lapu they order in restaurants are mostly grown in marine fish cages, pretty much like our favorite bangus.” He hastens to add, however, that rearing this delicacy is much more complicated and takes much longer at 4 to 6 months to reach the preferred market size.

Also, the process of bringing them alive and in good shape to restaurants requires knowledge in how to “put them to sleep” and transporting them in oxygenated containers. Fortunately, Tito (as he is known to fellow Davaeños) is from the city and has his business located nearby. “The other major suppliers are from Sarangani Province, Cotabato, and Surigao,” he says. “The travel time increases the risk of mortality during transport.”

On this day, Ilagan is delivering live grouper for four seafood restaurants downtown. Accordingly, for such a big volume, he also relies on other grouper growers, small fisherfolk associations that Tito helped with their respective operations back when he was working for a foreign-funded program to assist communities affected by Typhoon Pablo.

“I believe that High-Value Aquaculture is a viable alternative livelihood for fishermen,” Ilagan asserts passionately. “Rather than engage in traditional fish capture or even illegal fishing, fishermen can receive better income in a more environmentally sustainable manner from farming lapu-lapu, pompano, and other highly valued species. All they need is the technical knowledge, patience, and a little start-up capital to do it.”

25live_grouperThe harvest and packing process is not easy, however. The grouper are initially transferred to a canvass tank equipped with blowers for aeration and pump for water filtration. Then, gradually the water is cooled down with ice, while Ilagan meticulously records and regulates the temperature drop. This is done to prevent thermal shock and the resultant death of the fish. After the fish reach a “hibernative” state (“Tulog na,” Tito quips), they are placed in plastic bags, suffused with medical-grade oxygen, and packed in styrofoam boxes. “Even the water in the plastic bags have to be at a certain temperature,” he cautions, “because the fish have to remain in their current slumber while being transported. What exactly are the ideal temperatures? Ilagan laughs and says he cannot give too many secrets away.

Having graduated from the University of the Philippines in the early nineties with a degree in Fisheries, Ilagan first cut his teeth in prawn farming, which was experiencing its heyday back then. “When the prawn industry crashed,” he recounts, “a lot of aquaculture practitioners either left the industry or looked for other fish to produce.” For Tito, that meant trying his luck with less lucrative alternatives, like catfish and tilapia. He also did his bit for king and country, working at the Mindanao Economic Development Council, under local business leader Sebastian “Angie” Angliongto and then Peace Process czar, Jesus Dureza. He resigned eventually, when he realized that he could not leave his love for aquaculture behind.

“When I was interviewed for my job as an aquaculture specialist for a foreign-funded development program,” Ilagan laughingly narrates, “they asked me if I had knowledge of grouper and abalone production, I said yes, and then later started doing research.” That was the start of his immersion in grouper farming, which ultimately led him to help build a grouper hatchery in Tawi-Tawi province and actively promote the culture of lapu-lapu among municipal fisherfolk. Nowadays, as a private practitioner, he is regarded by the industry as one of the leading promoters of high-value grouper production in the Philippines.

The fish delivery arrives by mid-morning. Already, tables at the restaurants are starting to fill up. Diners tow their children to view the majestic fish as they swim around to get their bearings in their new – albeit temporary – home. Tito casually chats with the restaurant staff as the fish are being weighed and transferred to the aquarium tanks. Though a familiar face, he is not usually around for all deliveries as he is currently assigned in Tacloban, working on yet another foreign-funded program to assist fisherfolk under a Typhoon Yolanda rehabilitation effort.

This time, though, Ilagan made it a point to come home to personally supervise the large number of deliveries. “I also wanted to do my bit for the city and our mayor,” he explains, not without humor, “para hindi naman mapahiya ang Davao at isipin na dusty and remote tayo.” (MindaNews)