MANILA, Philippines (UPDATE) - A senator has one word to describe the root cause of the fishkill in Taal Lake and Pangasinan that has led to losses in the fishing industry worth millions of pesos.
Senate Committee on Agriculture Chairman Senator Francis 'Kiko' Pangilinan called it "greed".
"Man-made ang fishkill, ang pangunahing dahilan talaga ay overstocking," Pangilinan told reporters after a joint hearing on Wednesday with the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.
Pangilinan is convinced that overstocking of fingerlings in fish cages resulted in overpopulation of bangus, which eventually caused the fishkill.
At the start of the hearing, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) officials blamed climate change for the fishkill.
But Dr. Gil Jacinto of the U.P. Marine Science Institute said nature is not the culprit.
Jacinto presented an aerial photo of Taal Lake taken in 2006 showing a body of water crowded with fish cages.
That year, the BFAR said there were 12,000 fish cages, but the lake's capacity was only 6,000 cages.
"We have been over the carrying capacity," said Jacinto.
Jacinto presented a diagram showing a fish being fed. He said the feeds that are not consumed by fishes go down to the lake's bottom, which eventually become phytoplanktons.
These planktons, according to Jacinto, are not harmful but in fact are food for the fish.
However, once the growth of planktons becomes unabated, they compete with the production of oxygen in the water, depleting oxygen levels as the fish multiply.
According to BFAR Director Asis Perez, a fish cage should be 5 x 5 x 5 meters in length, width and depth. This size, according to BFAR, can sustain 15,000 to 20,000 milkfish fingerlings or 30,000 to 50,000 tilapia.
But Senator Juan Ponce-Enrile disagreed.
Enrile said he himself engaged in the business of aquaculture when he was only 5 years old, and his 1-meter-deep fish pond could not carry such a large number of fingerlings.
1,300 illegal fish cages
Local officials from the municipalities of Batangas who attended the Senate hearing admitted that there are unscrupulous fish cage operators who put in large volumes of fingerlings in their cages.
Mayor Epifanio Sandoval of San Nicolas, Batangas said there are even fish cages operating without permits from the local government units which regulate the fish cages.
BFAR officials said there are around 1,300 illegal fish cages operating in Taal Lake.
At the onset of a fishkill, BFAR said the death of fishes is due to the change in temperature in the lake.
Not temperature change
However, based on Jacinto's presentation, water temperature change could not have been the reason since there was no sufficient rainfall to cause a radical change in temperature.
"I am not convinced that rain caused the inversion. We did not have, over the last few weeks, any significant amount of rain that would have layered on top of Taal waters to be heavy enough to go down," said Jacinto.
Fishkill losses in Taal Lake and Pangasinan have reached P190 million.
In Taal Lake alone, the DENR reported that from May 27 until June 8, 2,056 metric tons of bangus have been lost from 239 fish cages in 9 municipalities, amounting to P144 million.
"It could have been avoided if they followed the number of cages we said to them," said Atty. Benjamin Tabios, assistant director of BFAR.
Pangilinan said the damage continues because consumers do not want to buy bangus or tilapia for fear that the products may have come from fishkill-affected areas.
Dismantle illegal fish cages
The Senate recommended to the DENR and BFAR to start dismantling illegal fish cages in Taal Lake, as well as in the Caquipotan Channel in Pangasinan, which flushes out water in the province.
Strict monitoring of fish cage operators and compliance with scientific practices of fish culture were also ordered to local government units to ensure that the fishkill will not happen again.
The BFAR was instructed by the Senate to religiously monitor water quality to protect the fish culture industry.
"Ang pangunahing dahilan dito, yung overstocking. I subscribe to the director's opinion that greed caused this, ‘yung mga naghangad na kumita sa mabilis na paraan," Pangilinan said.