Fisheries expert blasts malpractices, regulations snagging aquaculture

DAGUPAN CITY — One of the country’s experts in aquaculture and fisheries describes the current state of aquaculture industry in the country as “dismal” on account of the continuously declining production of various species of fish.

Dr. Wilfredo Yap, who in his younger days conceptualized the establishment of mariculture parks to boost fish production, told newsmen here on Thursday that in the past six years, production of aquaculture species such as milkfish, tilapia, shrimps and seaweeds has been continuously decreasing.

Yap, who once worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, cited as an example tilapia production in the entire country that remained at 270,000 metric tons yearly and has never reached 300,000 metric tons.

He said it is sad that Bangladesh, a newcomer in the production of tilapia which only started in 2010 or seven years ago, has now overtaken the Philippines.

Yap was among those who left his footprints on the Giant Steps Corner of the National Integrated Fisheries Technology Development Center here, right in front of the Asian Fisheries Academy, for his outstanding contributions to the development of aquaculture in the Philippines.

Asked about what needs to be done to improve the harvest of tilapia, he said among the foremost problems in its production is the disease brought by streptococcus bacteria, tagged as a major cause of tilapia fingerling mortality.

He said unlike other countries such as the United States, the Philippines is not using any vaccine to control the disease, hinting that if this can be solved, there would be more tilapia, dubbed as the poor man’s fish, to be produced in the country.

Another major problem, he added, is that in the country, tilapia is being harvested from the farm while they are still small in sizes at four to five pieces per kilo.

“Our families would like to buy tilapia without having to cut it up so that it can served in the dining table at one fish for each member,” Yap said.

But in other countries, he added, they always harvest tilapia weighing 400 to 500 grams or half a kilo each, thus they harvest more fish by the kilos than Filipinos.

He said if only Filipino fish farmers can wait a little longer for their tilapia to grow bigger before harvesting them, “our production of fish will easily double.”

Yap also noted that because of the malpractice of fish farmers in stocking with very little fingerlings, many of these die.

Other countries have a nursery industry and are only stocking their ponds when their tilapia fingerlings are bigger.

In Indonesia, they grow the fish first in nursery ponds till they are 10 centimeters each in sizes or at about 20 grams per fish before they stock them in the ground pond.

“Of course, if you stock the pond with bigger fingerlings, the mortality is insignificant and would grow bigger and faster in about four months,” he added.

Yap said the same trend is happening in the milkfish industry.

He noted that there was a boom in milkfish about 10 years ago, at the time when the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) was actively promoting the mariculture park system and putting them up in feasible areas all over the country.

But he noted that after a change in BFAR administration, there was also a change in program thrusts.

“So instead of boosting aquaculture, BFAR put more regulations in the establishment of mariculture parks and worst, it eventually cast them aside,” Yap said.

Mariculture parks are not being promoted anymore, so we can see that our milkfish industry is now dwindling, he lamented.

With mariculture parks, the Philippines used to be world’s top producer of milkfish, he pointed out.

Now, the country is producing less than 400,000 metric tons of milkfish a year while Indonesia, the current world’s number one milkfish producer, produces 650,000 metric tons.

Yap admitted that no one is investing on new fish hatcheries in the Philippines, that is why the country depends on Indonesia for half of its 2.2-billion fry requirement yearly.

“By importing our fry needs, we are supporting the small-scale hatcheries in Indonesia that actually produce these fry. We have hatcheries but their fry production combined is not enough,” he said.

On shrimps, the Philippines was the last country in the world to adopt penaeus vannamei or white shrimps.

P. vannamei used to be banned in the Philippines but a Taiwanese investor brought it in and raised this kind of shrimp in Zambales.

Noting p. vannamei’s potential in ensuring food security in the country, then House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. fought for the lifting of the ban on this shrimp species by BFAR.

Yap said it was only in 2007 that De Venecia forced the issue when he asked the Department of Agriculture to legalize p. vannamei.

But although the country is now producing p. vannamei, the government has restricted the importation of p. vannamei breeders which today are being sourced 100 percent from the United States.

Yap noted that BFAR would not allow big-time fish farmers to buy breeders from Singapore, even if one of the American companies that produces and sells breeders of this kind of shrimp has established its satellite office in Singapore.

At the same time, local fish farmers are not allowed to grow the p. vannamei into the size of a breeder.

“The result is, we have the most expensive fry all over Asia. In order for one to buy p. vannamei fry, he or she must have an accredited pond that have certain facilities for bio-security. Aside from the fact that to have one’s pond accredited is so expensive, this regulation is discouraging fish farmers and potential investors,” Yap said.

Because of the many restrictions imposed by the government through BFAR, many of the country’s fishponds cannot be stocked with p. vannamei, preventing the country from producing more shrimps for the dining table, he said.

“Sorry to say, but aquaculture in the Philippines has really taken a back seat because of the strict regulations being enforced by the government, badly affecting fish production,” Yap said.

Asked by newsmen if he and his group of aquaculturists have communicated these concerns with the government, Yap said: “Yes, we did. We are awake but it is not easy to wake up persons who refuse to be awakened.” Leonardo Micua/PNA