Experts worried over massive harvesting of sea grass common in Surigao

SURIGAO CITY (MindaNews/27 December) — Sargassum or “samo”, a type of seaweed that is abundant off the coast of Surigao del Norte, has become valuable to some fisher folk, and locals now consider it a means to augment income as overfishing continues to affect their main livelihood.

But experts warned that unregulated harvesting of samo could cause an imbalance in the marine ecosystem.

Dozens of sacks containing samo are being unloaded almost every day from boats in Barangay Sabang and San Juan in Surigao City. These are directly loaded to trucks of the waiting buyers.

A source said samo is most abundant in some of the province’s islands, though it is widely believed that most of the produce comes from Soccorro town in Bucas Grande.

Samo gatherers said they get some of the supply along the shores but the bulk is being harvested from the deeper part of the sea.

Samo collector and buyer Dalyn P. Monebit, said she and her brothers collect samo from farmers in Libuac, an island barangay in Surigao City, which is 40 minutes from the mainland by motorized banca.

She said they began their samo business in late September this year, adding their supply would reach as much as 500 kilos every day.

“Grasya man ini, atong ning gamiton kay mahalin man,” (This is a blessing, we should use it because it sells) said Eddie B. Pigaro, a fisherman in Barangay Libuac. “Lisod manguhag isda karon labina kon dili ka mogamit og illegal. Magutom gyod ang imo pamilya.” (It’s hard to rely on fishing now without using illegal methods. Your family will surely go hungry)

Samo, which thrives one to three meters underwater, is an alternative source of income when fish is scarce. Bad or good, it is easy to find, he added.

On fine days, he and two other companions can gather up to 100 kilos of dried Sargassum for only half a day’s effort. After the drying process, they sell their yield to a buyer at P5 per kilo.

But samo gathering can be labor intensive because one has to dry it up for half a day before it can be sold.

“It takes two to three days before we can sell this to a buyer. We make sure it is dried enough otherwise it will not be accepted,” Pigaro said.

Samo gatherers also said they have to be careful in handling the sea grass because it can trigger skin allergy.

Cheery Mae B. Casuyac, who works as a secretary to a Chinese sargassum buyer in the city, said they can transport a thousand tons of Sargassum every two weeks.

Ecologically important

Darwin Brian Lawas, a marine biologist who works as project officer of Green Mindanao Association Inc., said that this activity must be controlled otherwise it will cause imbalance in marine ecosystems and all fish and other living organisms will be affected.

Lawas said Sargassum provides essential refuge and safe breeding areas for fish.

“It offers safety and security to numerous species of marine animals including, fish, sea turtles, shrimp, crabs and other marine invertebrates. As an intricate offshore marine ecosystem, Sargassum is one of the most important structures in the ocean,” he said.

Marine biologists have determined that Sargassum harbors over 100 species of fish and fungi, as well as over 145 species of marine invertebrates.

Of all the fish that inhabit weed lines, filefish are the most common, along with 21 species of jack and 15 species of triggerfish, which also reside in these vegetative structures during at least one stage in their life cycle.

Generally, smaller organisms such as the Sargassum crab, frogfish, porcupine fish, butterfish, filefish, Sargassum nudibrach, Sargassum shrimp, triggerfish and larval game fish, hide in the foliage of the upper portion of the Sargassum. They all occupy a position in the food chain.

Slightly beneath and in the shade of Sargassum, larger bar jack, tripletail, Spanish sardine, ballyhoo, scad, blue-runner, and flying-fish call this unique ecosystem home.

Not prohibited

However, farmers and even poachers are assured they could not be arrested and penalized because there is no law that bans the harvesting of this useful seaweed.

According to Martiniano D. Yandra, provincial director of the Bureau of Food and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), their office has received reports about the samo trade but they didn’t act on them because there is no law banning its harvest.

He said this trade is relatively old and can be traced to the 90s, though it only reappeared recently.

Yandra said no studies have been conducted by their office on whether the massive harvesting of samo can be destructive for marine biodiversity.

But he admitted that the unregulated harvesting of samo can have a negative impact on the fauna and flora in the marine ecosystem.

Verlito Paredes, director of the Regional Maritime Office, said in a text message that they cannot do anything about the massive harvesting of samo.

He said he has received several complaints from village officials in Surigao City and other areas but because there is no law prohibiting the trade, they can’t do anything against it. (Roel N. Catoto/MindaNews)