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Notes on the endangered tawilis and taklobo

The Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has included the freshwater fish tawilis (scientific name: Sardinella tawilis) in the global list of endangered species.

Tawilis can only be found in the waters of Taal Lake in Batangas province.

“Within Lake Taal, there are major threats to fish diversity and this species (Tawilis) due to overexploitation, pollution and competition and/or predation with introduced fishes, resulting in continuing declines in habitat quality and number of mature individuals,” the IUCN said in a statement.

Late last year, the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity reported that the Ark of Taste International has likewise listed tawilis in the “catalogue of endangered heritage foods of the Philippines.”

A species is considered endangered when it is seriously at risk of extinction.  The inclusion of tawilis in the endangered list is a “wake-up call,” said Dr. Mudjekeewis Santos of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST).

Not only is tawilis only found in the Philippines, but it is also the only freshwater sardine in the world.

“(Tawilis) is found in the third largest lake in the country with an area of more than 66,000 hectares and average depth of 60 meters,” said Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, a fishery expert who popularized tilapia as the country’s most popular fish after bangus.  “The fish was landlocked with the formation of Taal Volcano, about 100,000 years ago, which separated the body of water from the sea.”

Taal Lake is a tourist destination as has been described as “a lake within a lake and a volcano within a volcano.”

PRIDE OF SOUTHERN TAGALOG

 Although small, about six- to seven-inches long, tawilis is the most dominant fish catch in Taal lake.

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Research (BFAR), a line agency of the Department of Agriculture (DA), said the fish is caught by gill net, beach seine, ring net and motorized push net.

People who have tasted the fish said tawilis is really mouth-watering.

Dr. Aristotle Carandang, chief science research specialist at the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), considers tawilis as “the pride of Southern Tagalog.”

“Tawilis is best eaten as dried (for frying), deep fried (eat everything), and as pinais (paksiw na nakabalot sa dahon ng saging). There are also bottled tawilis sold in supermarkets,” Carandang said.

 “I love the deep-fried style,” said Dr. Richard T. Mata, a physician from Panabo City who never fails to order tawilis whenever he goes to Tagaytay, a town overlooking Taal Lake.  “They always say that the beauty of tawilis is that you can eat the whole fish without removing the bones.  My son loves it, too.”

OVERFISHING 

In addition to raw consumption, tawilis is also processed into various food products.  It is one of the many fish species dried, salted and sold as daing in the country.  They are also smoked and bottled in oil, and sold commercially.

 Overfishing has been cited as the primary culprit on why it has become an endangered species.  “The major cause of the drastic decline in tawilis catch is overfishing, wherein the rate of human exploitation of the fish surpassed the ability of the fish to replenish itself,” commented Dr. Guerrero, who used to be the director of the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development.

 The Marine Wildlife Watch in the Philippines (MWWP), in an infographic that was posted in its Facebook, reported that the tawilis population has decreased by at least 50% in the last decade.

It said that the reported total catch of tawilis was 1,672 metric tons in 1998.  The total catch of the fish dropped to 240 metric tons in 2005 and further dipped to 107 metric tons in 2010.

TEMPORARY BAN

 The use of illegal fishing gear has also contributed to the its demise.  “The illegal use of trawlers and ‘superlights’ to attract the fish at night in the past almost wiped out the species,” Dr. Guerrero claimed.

 Experts are one in saying that something must be done to save the tawilis from extinction, owing to its rich cultural and historical significance, not to mention its pride of place in Philippine cuisine.

“Ecologically, without tawilis, Taal Lake will become less biodiverse, unbalanced, and less resilient to environmental changes,” explained Dr. Arnel “AA” Yaptinchay, MWWP founder and director.

 Once tawilis is gone from the waters of Taal Lake, it will be gone forever.  “If lost, it can never be replaced again,” Dr. Yaptinchay reminded.

 Several things can be done to keep tawilis thriving.  “Address all the threats simultaneously,” Dr. Yaptinchay suggested.  “Government needs to step in and regulate activities in the lake and manage fishing activities by introducing closed seasons for tawilis, and probably even a temporary ban until a non-detriment finding is done.”

According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a “non-detriment finding” is a conclusion by a scientific authority that the export of specimens of a particular species will not impact negatively on the survival of that species in the wild.

“More biological and ecological studies should be conducted, especially in culturing the species,” Yaptinchay added.

 Here’s a good news.  Dr. Maris Mutia of the National Fisheries Research and Development Institute has already submitted her recommendation for a closed season (period of no fishing) during the peak spawning time of the tawilis to the Protected Area Management Board and the local government unit where the lake is located.

Aside from tawilis, there are other sardine species like Sardinella lemuru and S. gibbosa (usually canned or dried) that also need to be properly managed.  Sardines are one of the cheapest seafood-source of protein for most Filipinos.  In addition, they are part of the marine food chain being a major forage species of many predatory fish species, mammals, and cetaceans.

“We need to make sure that there is science-based management of sardines, do more scientific studies on the matter, and implement conservation measures to ensure that we will have sardines forever,” pointed out Oceana Philippines, a non-government organization trying to save the world’s oceans.

GIANT CLAMS 

Another marine species that thrives in the Philippine waters is the giant clam, locally known as taklobo and known in the science world as Tridacna gigas. It may not be endemic to the country, but the Philippines is one of the few countries where it lives.  This bivalve mollusk can be found most in the coral reefs of South Pacific and Indian Ocean.  It is also present in the South China Sea.

 Giant clams are the largest living bivalves as their size can reach up to 1.5 meters.  They are described as “solar marine species,” which means they need the sun to grow, survive and thrive.  Most of them prefer to live in shallow waters, particularly in coral reef areas that make them vulnerable to poaching and exploitation.

“The giant clam gets only one chance to find a nice home,” according to a report released by the National Geographic.  “Once it fastens itself to a spot on a reef, there it sits for the rest of its life.”

 Giant clams may be bottom-dwelling behemoths but they are also on the brink of extinction.  “Populations of wild giant clams are declining rapidly in various countries, including Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines,” revealed Endangered Species International.

It is not surprising therefore why giant claims also appeared in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  Giant clams are also included in the CITES list. 

To save the giant clams, the government included the species in the Philippine Fisheries Code (Republic Act 8550).  The Code prohibits the act of collecting, selling and exporting giant clams. Should anyone be caught violating the law, the person will be fined administratively, “three times the value of the species, or P300,000 to P3 million.”

 In addition, the person committing the unlawful act will be imprisoned from five to eight years and a fine equivalent to twice the administrative fine, and forfeiture of species.

 Like the tawilis, giant clams are harvested for food. “Though the soft body parts account for about 10% of the body weight, it is nearly pure, healthy protein,” said Oceana, an international organization trying to protect the world’s oceans.

“Giant clams are being protected through the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs),” said Dr. Guerrero.  MPAs restrict human activity for a conservation purpose, typically to protect natural resources.

 In addition, artificial spawning of giant clams has already been done by the Marine Science Institute (MSI) of the University of the Philippines at the Bolinao Marine Laboratory in Bolinao, Pangasinan.

 Over 40,000 giant clams are reportedly living at the Silaqui Ocean Nursery in the said province.

SUCCESS STORY

In Davao Region, another success story was initiated by the Davao del Norte State College (DNSC) which manages the Marine Reserve Park and Multipurpose Hatchery at Barangay Adecor in Kaputian District in the Island Garden City of Samal.

Preservation efforts commenced in 1999 when the area was declared a marine park.  It got a major boost when MSI provided the much-needed support through its Giant Clam Enhancement Program.  Today, more than 3,500 giant clams are thriving in the 14-hectare marine reserve park.

 In response to the call for conservation and increasing interest among the locals and international tourists on giant clams, DNSC launched the community-based Taklobo Tours Project.  It started in 2013 and now it is one of the island’s tourist destinations.

 “Awesome and inspiring marine sanctuary that protect several species of giant clams,” commented one tourist.  “With our snorkel masks on, we were led underwater by a certified guide to witness firsthand these amazing sea creatures.  We also learned about their habitat, life cycle and feeding.  A definite must-see.”

 There’s still hope for giant clams, after all.  “To save our giant clams, we should protect them in the wild from poachers (particularly foreigners) and promote their sea farming,” suggests Dr. Guerrero.

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