BENHAM RISE — Fisherfolk from Infanta, Quezon are hoping government makes good on its promises to provide boats, a storage facility, and credit. Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol made the pledge in a visit early this month, a few hours before he led an expedition to Benham Rise east of Luzon.
Among the people he met and went on the expedition with was Romeo Sarco, 59, who has been fishing in Benham Rise for the past 20 years, making the treacherous, 36-hour voyage in his wooden boat each time — and that’s just one way.
Sarco was concerned about a total log ban that had kept him from repairing his boat, and feared that strong waves would sink it when they were out at sea.
“Baka kami ay kakainin ng pating (We might get eaten by sharks),” he said, managing a laugh.
Nevertheless, he and his fellow fishermen from Barangay Dinahican keep returning to Benham Rise because it yields more fish. In waters nearer to home, it would take him 10 days to match the catch he makes in two to three days in Benham Rise.
“Benham Rise, doon lang kami kumikita ng medyo (malaki). Nakatapos ‘yung anak ko, doon din lang sa Benham Rise (We can only earn more at Benham Rise. My kids were able to finish school because of Benham Rise),” Sarco said.
Unfortunately, the fishermen have started facing more competition from the “mayayaman” (the rich), or the ring-net operators who have also discovered the abundant waters. How could Sarco’s handline compare to their nets?
Fishing is seasonal, too. “‘Pag walang isdang gutom, e ‘di hindi kami makahuli (When there’s no hungry fish, we don’t catch anything),” Sarco said.
It is when the waves are strong that the fish get hungry, he said. “Kaya gaya namin na gusto namin ang pera, kahit malakas (ang alon) nagtitiis kami para lamang maraming huli kami (Which is why for us who wish to earn, we endure the strong waves just so we can have a big catch).”
This is also why they are adamant that foreigners should stay away from the territory.
“Sana ‘wag nang pasukin ng taga-ibang bansa. Kasi karanasan din po nu’ng sinamahan ng asawa ko na naabutan sila rito ng mga Taiwanese. Hinabol sila (I wish those from other countries wouldn’t enter the waters. Because that was what my husband experienced when Taiwanese came upon them and chased them),” said Delia Bernados, 47, a member of the Pinagbuklod na Maliliit na Mangingisda ng Dinahican.
Bernados said the foreigners, who they presumed were Taiwanese, followed their boat for two hours. When it got dark, the Filipinos doused their lights to shake their pursuers off.
Sarco admitted that he was probably to blame for provoking the strangers.
According to him, the government had earlier awarded his organization, Samahan ng mga Kapitan ng Mangingisda sa Dinahican Association, three payaos, fish aggregating devices installed in Benham Rise. Each payao has a floater platform of palm fronds anchored to the bottom and secured with a rope.
The foreigners, who used a longline to fish, had gotten their line snarled in the payao. Instead of untangling it, they cut the rope of the payao, rendering it useless. The fish it was supposed to draw would go elsewhere, leaving the Filipino fishermen to blindly fish in the vast sea.
“Kaya nakakayamot. E sa akin naka-award ‘yun (Which made me mad. It had been awarded to me, too),” Sarco recalled. So, under the cover of night, he took the longline the foreigners had been using to catch fish.
“Malay ba nila ako ‘yung kumuha? E di ‘yung hinabol, ‘yung iba (How could they know that I was the one who took it? So they went off and chased someone else),” Sarco said. “Wala naman kaming magagawa talaga ‘pag ‘yung Taiwan magagalit. Mabibilis manakbo ‘yun. Malaki pa (We really can’t do anything if the Taiwanese get mad. Their boats are fast and big).”
The only thing they could do, he said, was to get revenge at night and try to deter them from returning. But they always did, every year, knowing the fish are in Benham Rise, coming with two to three boats at a time.
“Papasok sila, eh atin ‘to eh. Pilipinas ay sa atin. Yamang-dagat natin ‘to eh, dapat hindi nila pakialaman (They keep entering our waters, but it’s ours. The Philippines is ours. These are our natural resources. They shouldn’t meddle with it),” Bernados piped in.
But the fisherfolk also face threats from their countrymen.
Bernados said illegal fishers continue plying municipal waters, forcing locals to venture farther out to sea. Dynamite fishermen and commercial vessels still work close to shore.
Another challenge is unfair prices.
This month, said Sarco, fish is cheap because it is abundant. Tangigue went for P250 to P275 a kilo, tuna for P150 to P200 per kilo. Ice alone, to keep the fish fresh, costs P330 per block. Sarco usually takes 70 blocks on a voyage.
“Lugi ka pa sa pagod (It’s not even worth the effort),” Sarco said.
“Siyempre pag pumunta ka rito, malaki ang konsumo mo. Pag-uwi mo naman, marami kang isda, lugi pa (Of course when you get here [to Benham Rise], you consume a lot. When you get home, you have a lot of fish with you, but you still get the short end of the stick),” said Rafaela Sta. Iglesia, 49, of the Nagkakaisang Mamamayang Mangingisda ng Dinahican.
“‘Pag marami ang huli ng isda, mura ang isda. ‘Pag konti ang isda, mahal ang isda. Eh sa konsumo pa lang sa yelo tapos ibabiyahe pa, ang laki na ng nakukuha (When you catch a lot of fish, it’s cheap. When fish is scarce, it’s expensive. Consumption of ice alone, and the long trip, already requires a lot of money),” Bernados said.
But the solution to their dilemma had been figured out a long time ago.
“Dito sa atin, kulang lang tayo sa alaga ng gobyerno. Alam mo kung bakit? Kung magkaroon sana ng storage sa Real — dati nang pinaplano ‘yan — ‘pag mura ang isda, iistambay muna. Oras na magmahal ang isda, ‘tsaka ilalabas. Malaki ang kita (The government doesn’t take care of us living here enough. You know why? If they construct a storage plant in Real — it was planned a long time ago – when the fish is cheap, we’ll have it on standby first. Once the price goes up, we bring them out. We earn more),” Sarco said.
In response, Piñol pledged intervention worth P6.93 million to the fisherfolk, including 15 30-footer motorized fiberglass boats, 15 payao, 300 sets of nets, 50 life vests, 32 solar lanterns, and seven buoy markers with accessories.
He also told them that he had proposed a structure on Benham Rise to President Rodrigo Duterte, and that it could house an ice storage facility for the fish, as well as a dock for the fishing boats.
Bernados hoped that Piñol’s visit would prod the local government into paying the fisherfolk more attention.
“Ramdam na po talaga namin, ‘yung pagpunta pa lang nila … ramdam na po namin na pahahalagahan na kami (We can feel it, their visit alone… we can feel that they will now value us),” she said.