Surigao bars sargassum trading as marine product traders complain of dwindling stocks

SURIGAO CITY (MindaNews/24 June) —Amid the rising complaints due to the massive harvesting and trading of sargassum, locally known as “samu,” Mayor Ernesto Matugas has issued an executive order barring such activity in the locality due to its impact on the marine ecosystem and on health concerns.

The complaints came not only from concerned residents but also from marine product traders, who claimed that the volume of fish sold to them by the fishermen has declined drastically as a result of the unregulated sargassum collections.

Reporters obtained a copy of the mayor’s executive order only last Friday during a meeting attended by different stakeholders in the city and sargassum buyers.

Matugas issued Executive Order 11, dated May 17, 2013 effectively banning the extraction, storage and transportation of sargassum, a variety of seaweed, within Surigao City.

“It has been observed that there is rampant extraction, storage and further transportation of sargassum in the city,” the executive order said.

“Sargassum is a critically important habitat for hundreds of marine species, and the growth of large quantities could reduce the effect of waves along the coastline especially during storms,” the order added.

Storage of sargassum also poses threat to human health if due care and caution is not properly carried out, the mayor said.

Citing marine scientists from the United States, Matugas said that Sargassum emits poisonous hydrogen sulfide during decomposition.

According to a report published at the St. Maarten News website, hydrogen sulfide is a colorless, very poisonous and highly flammable gas. It spreads an unpleasant odor much like the smell of rotten eggs.

The article stated that inhaling the gas in small doses “could trigger irritation of the eyes and the respiratory system, especially among people who are sensitive to it.” The groups at risk are people with respiratory problems, asthma patients, elderly people, babies and pregnant women. The article added that certain animals, especially dogs, are also sensitive to the inhalation of hydrogen sulfide.

Matugas said the unregulated and massive extraction of sargassum can cause environmental harm on marine resources and can disturbed the ecological balance.

In the meeting last Friday afternoon at the mayor’s conference room, Ernesto Kang, executive officer of the Business Permit and Licensing Office, told sargassum buyers that they can still do their business until June 30.

The meeting was also attended by concerned citizens and representatives from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Beyond June 30, Kang said the city government will not anymore allow the storage and transport of sargassum within the city.

Kang said that the business licenses of sargassum buyers “have been revoked effective last month,” noting they were given enough time to transport their sargassum supplies out of their storage areas in the city.

He identified the sargassum buyers in the city as Ralinda Paganasol, who is operating in Purok 2 in Barangay San Juan, and Joey Lim in Punta Bilang-Bilang and Lito Lim in Navarro Street, both in Barangay Taft.

The two Chinese traders did not show up during the meeting, but Kang said they were already informed to stop their activity.

At least 56 families surrounding the storage in Barangay San Juan have petitioned to close the storage because of the awful smell from the sargassum and because it causes traffic in the area during the loading and unloading of the stocks.

Monina B. Caluna, a barangay councilor of San Juan and one of the petitioners, said she wants a stop to sargassum trading because it not only destroys the marine environment but also causes sanitary problems in their area.

“The smell is really bad, their operation caused traffic, and the area is a mess because of the pieces of samu littering the area,” she said, adding that she is ashamed when tourists pass by the area.

Paganasol said that sargassum trading “helped fishing communities economically,” noting that some illegal fishermen had stopped their dynamite fishing activities to focus on collecting sargassum while others stopped poaching wood and mangroves to be made into charcoal.

She said they buy sargassum from fisherfolk at P8.50 per kilo, adding she can normally deliver 20 tons per week to her buyers in Cagayan de Oro City and even more during the dry season.

Sargassum is being exported to China to make feeds and fertilizers, Paganasol said.

Paganasol told MindaNews that she understands the concerns of the people in the city and that she agrees to stop her trade.

Martiniano Yandra, BFAR provincial director, said that sargassum is an important element in the marine ecology through the oxygen that it can produce.

He slammed claims of buyers that the sargassum trade helps improved the plight of the fishing communities.

Yandra said that fishing communities would benefit more if they don’t take away the seaweeds, because in the long term they would have “endless resources” from the sea since the ecology is not destroyed.

Samu provides habitat to different species and produces oxygen to the marine ecosystem, he stressed.

Cioney Paqueo, president of Surigao Marine Traders Association, said they demanded for the stoppage of rampant sargassum trading because it affected the marine supply chain and is taking a toll on their business.

“I used to have at least 50 kilos of high value marine products like lobsters, cattle fish, octopus, lapu-lapu (fish groupers) and yellowfin tuna everyday but since the start of this samu trade, I am lucky if I have 10 kilos per day,” she told MindaNews.

Elmer Tecson, officer-in-charge of the City Environment and Natural Resources Office, said the executive order issued by the mayor’s office “will help avert the further deterioration of the marine ecosystem in the area.”

Since last year, he admitted that the city government has been bombarded with complaints about the collection and trading of sargassum in the area. (Roel Catoto/MindaNews)