LAKE SEBU, South Cotabato (MindaNews/10 March) — A paradise lost.
Seventy-five year old Sindoy Cuyan recalls how as a young T’boli girl, swimming in Lake Sebu was “pure fun,” its waters so clear, the fishes so bountiful.
“We had no problem putting them on the table for food and even sold the excess to the market,” Cuyan, caretaker of the shoreline T’boli tribal museum, smiles as she remembers this paradise of a lake nestled 700 meters above sea level, the colors of its waters dazzling at sunrise or sunset.
But the lake of her youth is but a memory.
The sorry state of Lake Sebu, the biggest of the three lakes in this town, has caught the attention of conservation experts who are calling for a moratorium on fish cage operation as a drastic solution to revive the lake’s old glory.
Otherwise, if the untrammeled greed for profit continues, “A paradise lost” could be the epitaph for Lake Sebu town, where short term economic gains and environmental sustainability have been battling each other for years.
The fish cages, which started sprouting in the late 1980s, has been choking the life out of the lake, adversely affecting the lives of the T’bolis.
It used to be so easy to catch fish using the traditional pamunit or hook and line fishing, Cuyan says. Today, “if we go fishing, rarely can you hook a fish at the open spaces.”
Indigenous fish species like bagtis and haluan are now hard to find, she adds.
Gasping for breath
Now considered in a critical state, Lake Sebu is literally gasping for breath.
In separate interviews, three experts from the local government unit, the academe and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, told MindaNews that fish cages culturing tilapia — the fish which Lake Sebu is famous for — are mainly the culprits, coupled with wastes coming from residents and resorts around the lake.
Mushrooming out of control, the number of fish cages has gone far beyond the carrying capacity of the lake, a study by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, an agency under the Department of Agriculture, showed.
A few kilometers before entering the heart of the town, the sight of fish cages at Lake Sebu immediately catches the attention of tourists flocking to dine at the resorts or to simply unwind, splurge on ecotourism adventures or buy tribal handicrafts for souvenirs.
Dominated by the T’boli tribe, this town, dubbed the “Summer Capital of South Cotabato,” is also famous for the T’nalak, a colorful and intricately designed hand-woven cloth made of abaca fibers.
The town itself, with its cool climate especially during nighttime, is mystically pastoral, surrounded by rolling mountains and still visible lush forest cover.
Besides Lake Sebu, there are two other smaller lakes in the town—Lahit and Seloton—and its seven falls, two of which are easily accessible by vehicles and where tourists could enjoy a zipline ride.
All these natural wonders have been the key factor why the town is among the famous spots in Mindanao’s tourism circuit.
But Lake Sebu is “now in a very sorry state and might just die if nothing is done now to save it,” Rudy Muyco, the local government’s lake warden, narrated to MindaNews during a two-hour motorized boat ride around the lake.
The lake, he said, is naghihingalo (gasping for breath), no thanks to the fish cages.
The Office of the Municipal Agriculture placed the area occupied by the fish pens at 15 percent of the lake’s 354 hectares.
Tourists cannot appreciate the extent of the area occupied by fish cages because a motorboat ride usually takes only about 45 minutes and allows them to see only a small part of the big picture.
Records of the lake’s warden office showed that as of July 2012, there were 4,586 fish cages maintained by 329 operators within the lake’s four big islands and at least 10 islets.
During the same period, 94 floating houses supposedly serving as watch posts had become living quarters of the tenants, even as this is prohibited by a local ordinance.
Many of these fish cages as well as some beautiful spots where the water turns a clear light green due to the reflection of the vegetation, are not part of the tour packages.
Lake Sebu’s area has shrunk in the last five years. From 365 hectares in 2007, according to the data provided by municipal agriculture officer Zaldy Artacho showed, it is now down to only 354 hectares.
The reduction by 11 hectares is a result of siltation due to surrounding agricultural lands, a factor that Artacho said, also contributed to the degradation of Lake Sebu.
The fish cages occupy an estimated 56 hectares or 15 percent of the lake’s area, far beyond what is allowed by Republic Act 8550 or the Fisheries Code of 1998.
The law mandates that utilization for aquaculture must not exceed 10% of the lake’s total area.
Muyco, the lake warden, admitted the local government unit failed to regulate the sprouting of fish cages over the last 25 years, noting it took into consideration the “300 to 600 families” who are now dependent on the industry.
Too much for the lake
But too many fish cages have taken its toll on the tilapia industry itself.
The overstocking of fishes and the feeds to nourish them have been identified as one of the main reasons behind the pollution that led to degradation of the lake, said Leonisa Alfaro, DENR’s South Cotabato Protected Area Superintendent (PASu) for the Allah Valley Protected Landscape (AVPL).
Alfaro estimates that the caged tilapias consume just 30 percent of the feeds given them, with the 70% settling down at the lake’s bed, thus polluting the water.
Last year, Asis Perez, director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, ordered an investigation on the fish kill in the lake involving around 50 tons tilapia or some 2,000 pieces of 25-kilogram plastic containers.
In a report dated February 7, 2012, the investigating team, composed of four BFAR experts, recommended the dismantling of excess fish cages by the LGU in order to maintain the lake’s carrying capacity.
Alfaro placed the lake’s carrying capacity at around 320 fish cages. With 4,586 fish pens based on the record of the lake warden’s office, the lake is carrying 13 times beyond its capacity.
“The condition of Lake Sebu is critical in terms of fish culture. The level of dissolved oxygen, which is most probably the most critical water quality variable in the lake, is lethal to aquaculture species (tilapia) based on the series of water quality trials conducted,” the BFAR study showed.
The study found out that the causes of the February 2012 fish kill were overstocking of fishes, overfeeding and domestic run-off/chemical wastes, resulting to oxygen depletion, toxic gases and pollutants.
Locals call the phenomenon “kamahong,” a T’boli term for fish kill. Even before the fish cages were installed in the late 1980s, “kamahong” has been known to happen, usually during the wet season due to lack of sunlight that facilitates the photosynthesis process.
Dr. James Namocatcat, a marine biologist at the Mindanao State University in General Santos City, has found that in some parts of the lake, even at a depth of four feet, dissolved oxygen nearly reached zero level.
That is especially true where the fish cage operations are located, he added, but cautioned that there’s still a need to conduct a deeper scientific investigation “before reaching a conclusive finding.”
Namocatcat explained that it is not only the caged tilapia stocks that need dissolved oxygen to survive in the lake; water hyacinths, algae and bacteria living there also consume them.
He said the weather is also a key factor that leads to oxygen depletion at the lake, particularly if there is no sunlight for days as it would deprive the photosynthesis process that allows aquatic plants and algae to produce oxygen.
“An interplay of factors actually caused the degradation of the lake,” Namocatcat told MindaNews.
He also cited the residential owners who flush their wastes directly to the lake.
It maybe recalled that floating watch posts on the lake have been turned into living quarters by caretakers, without urinals or human waste catchments.
To save Lake Sebu from dying, Namocatcat suggests that a moratorium on fish cage operations be declared to allow the lake to regenerate. Once it recovers, he says, the number of fish cages must be regulated in accordance with the lake’s carrying or assimilation capacity.
With a moratorium, the impact on fish cage operators would be temporary, he said, adding that if this is not done, the effects of a dead lake would be long term.
The proposed moratorium, however, does not sit well with majority of the fish cage operators who fear economic losses, said lake warden Muyco. In fact, he said, he had been receiving threats for warning illegal fish pen operators to dismantle their cages.
In the February 7, 2012 BFAR report, Artacho, the municipal agriculture officer, was quoted as saying that his office had “its best intention to effectively manage the lake but was having difficulties in implementing fisheries regulation because of political interventions.”
The problems also became complicated because some of the fish pens belong to “higher” level officials, it added.
Polluted seven falls
Water flowing out of lake Sebu goes downstream and passes through Lake Seloton before ending at the seven falls, which South Cotabato is also promoting as a tourism destination.
Lake Seloton, which measures 34 hectares, is now also teeming with tilapia fish cages, with Muyco, the lake warden, placing the unutilized portion to be at just 10 percent of the total area.
“It is no longer advisable to bathe at the seven falls because the water flowing through is polluted,” he said, citing the water pollution both of lakes Sebu and Seloton.
“Sad to say,” Muyco said, “the seven falls are now for viewing purposes only.”
Alfaro, the South Cotabato protected area superintendent, echoes Muyco’s lament: “the seven falls are not good for bathing anymore.”
The town of Lake Sebu—along with Surallah and T’boli also in South Cotabato and Bagumbayan in Sultan Kudarat— is part of the Allah Valley Protected Landscape, a proclaimed watershed forest reserve and one of the key biodiversity areas of the country.
The landscape was declared a watershed forest reserve by virtue of Presidential Proclamation 2455 issued by then President Ferdinand Marcos on September 24, 1985.
For Lake Sebu town, the watershed covers nearly 10,000 hectares, and according to the Allah Valley Protected Landscape primer, “was declared to safeguard and preserve particularly the lake’s natural integrity and the watershed forest resources.”
In some parts of the lake, however, there are creeks that have dried up because they were dammed or diverted to provide water to agricultural lands.
Ironically, the damming of the creeks, according to Alfaro, was cleared by the Protected Area Management Board. The dams are projects of the communal irrigators’ association funded by the National Irrigation Administration.
Muyco said the dams deprived the lake of constant sources of fresh water, and could be among the reasons, along with siltation, why the lake’s size is shrinking.
While some of the inlets of the lake no longer flow, fish cages, on the other hand, are blocking the outlet from discharging the proper volume of water.
The circulation of water because of these contrasting factors is affecting the lake, he said.
Muyco also cited the volume of water hyacinths that has been accumulating in the lake as another threat to the lake. He blamed this on the “irresponsible practices” of fish cage operators.
Instead of removing the water hyacinths and other aquatic plants which can be processed into organic fertilizers, the operators would let them loose into the open space of the lake.
Last year, Muyco estimated they cleaned up 52 hectares of water hyacinths in a portion of the lake because of the laziness of the fish cage operators to weed them out themselves.
Alfaro, the South Cotabato protected area superintendent, stressed that Lake Sebu is no longer good for human swimming but for boating escapades only.
The color of the lake’s water varies depending on the location—greenish in the islands and islets deeper into the lake but mostly murky brown near the shorelines where the fish cages have been put up.
“A massive clean up is needed for the lake to bring it up back,” says Cuyan, the T’boli tribal museum caretaker, as she scored owners of carabaos and horses who let the animals bathe in the lake.
For Alfaro, a holistic approach involving the full cooperation of the local government, fish cage operators, concerned national government agencies and other local stakeholders like the resort owners is needed to fully address the degradation of the lake.
This approach includes tree planting, clean up drives and formulation and implementation of conservation policies to address the rehabilitation of the lake.
Only a concerted effort can save Lake Sebu from dying, says Alfaro. (Bong S. Sarmiento/MindaNews)