2019 Feature National Women of Bacoor’s embattled mussel industry struggle for survival

Women of Bacoor’s embattled mussel industry struggle for survival

(This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.)

A WAFT of air from the east along Kawit, Cavite, brings memories of mornings by the sea. Silhouette figures become clearer and the sight brings the solid image the nose sensed: mussels, piled dozens on stainless steel buckets and rattan trays on a table made of wood.

Behind one of these is Charmel Dela Cruz (not her real name), a 4-foot-8 24-year-old mussel trader. Her medium-built frame is hidden by a faded pink floral dress under a blue apron. Like fellow sellers, Dela Cruz is already at her stall along Antero Soriano Highway, at the north end of the Manila-Cavite Expressway (Cavitex), before the crack of dawn; wiping the tabletop, sweeping, while waiting for the mussels to arrive.

While she’s considered a neophyte trader, Dela Cruz already knows the ins and outs of the business, its opportunities and challenges: from growing these cheap, protein-rich seafood to harvesting, buying and selling them fresh, or processing and retailing.

“Selling mussel has been my family’s source of income and livelihood ever since I can remember,” Dela Cruz said in Filipino.

Her parents originally came from Albay, a province in the Bicol region, a hundred kilometers south of here. She was eight when they migrated to Cavite to cash in on the booming mussel industry at the time.

“My uncle was first to come here; then everybody followed,” she said.

Just a way of life

IN Bacoor, a town south of the country’s capital city Manila, growing and harvesting mussels have become a way of life. This is true for Dela Cruz’s family.

Starting a small family of her own, this high-school graduate and mother of a 3-year-old girl is currently the lone breadwinner in the family. Her income relies on the sale of mussels.

Dela Cruz’s husband of three years used to work as a maintenance man at a small company. He’s currently unemployed but training to qualify for employment as a security guard.

Dela Cruz herself worked in the past as a factory worker for several electronic manufacturers in Laguna and Batangas.

“But I decided to stick to selling mussel. This is better. Here, I can earn P1,000 a day compared to the minimum wage I get working at [an] electronics [factory] where I have to spend on transportation and food,” she said, adding the she also sees her weekly pay cut when she reports late.

The daily minimum wage rate in the Calabarzon region is P303 to P400. Highly urbanized cities implement a higher minimum wage as approved by the National Wages and Productivity Commission.

On the highway

SIXTY-Three-Year-Old Rosie Lager said she and her husband Rogelio were able to raise all five children, including two college graduates, from selling mussel along the road.

All her children now have their own family. Lager is now sending one of her grandchildren to college.

“Since getting married in 1972, this has been our source of income and livelihood,” she said. “I am from Tacloban, Leyte, but when I met my husband, I decided to move and stay with him here in Cavite. We started selling mussel when my husband worked as a diver, harvesting for a mussel farm in Bacoor. During that time, he receives only P5 a day. Before, he doesn’t even know how to swim but he had to learn to earn a living,” she said.

Despite being “retired” because of aneurysm, the 74-year-old Rogelio continues to help his wife tend to their store. He considered raising their children well as a source of happiness.

“And my wife is always here with me.”

Most of their customers are motorists, while others are residents in nearby villages.

Dela Cruz and Lager were among the many women traders selling oysters and mussels, with their wooden stalls along major thoroughfares in coastal towns in Cavite.

Not hard to find

MUSSELS farming and trade has its ups and downs for Anne Maceda, 32, a mussel trader at the Paranaque Fisherman’s Wharf for five years now.

“Here money is not hard to find as long as you are willing to work,” Maceda said, pointing to a group of young children who works for a living while “playing” by cleaning mussels.

According to Maceda, the children get to earn P20 for washing out grime from each mussel.

“It’s voluntary, really. And they enjoy it,” she said. “But we pay them because they are a big help.” Maceda said the children also earn allowance for school.

Julie Cuela, 62, who has been selling mussels at a public market in Sucat, Parañaque, for 10 years now, said she finds selling mussels a lucrative trade.  She buys wholesale from Maceda with a P10-discount for every gallon. A gallon of mussel contains about 2.5 kilos. Normally, it would only cost around P100 at the so-called bulungan. It could sell to as much as P250.

Whether they are wives, mothers, or daughters—many women have been empowered by Bacoor’s embattled mussel industry.

Aquatic resources

BACOOR City is the birthplace of mussel farming in the Philippines.

Before the 1950s, mussel is not even considered food, but a pest in oyster farms.

The discovery that mussel is edible gave birth to the idea it can also be cultured like an oyster.

It was in 1955 when what is now known as the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources’s (BFAR) Oyster Farming Station in Binakayan, Cavite, set up a demonstration mussel farm to promote mussel farming.

Many fishermen in Bacoor decided to grab the opportunity.  By the 1960s, mussel farms quickly spread in many areas in the country.

While mussel farming in other parts of the country is thriving, the same cannot be said in Bacoor and other towns in Cavite, such as Kawit and Cavite City. Bacoor is experiencing a rapid shift from an agriculture-based economy to a residential and commercial urban center.

Bacoor’s growing population is also putting pressure on the coastal environment. It is currently the second most populated city in Cavite, with 600,609 people based on a 2015 census.

Pollution, climate change and unbridled development are slowly killing the source of income and livelihood of thousands of small fishermen in Bacoor, a town which belongs to the Manila Bay region.

Threats of progress

ACCORDING to Myrna Candinato, mussel farming is the way of life of many coastal families in Bacoor.

“Before, we used to pick halaan (clam) and would not have to go far to catch fish,” she said. “Not anymore.”

Candinato is president of the Alyansa ng mga Magdaragat sa Bacoor of Barangay Maliksi III. She has been a mussel farm operator for almost three decades and has witnessed this agricultural subsector’s growth. Now, she fears that an ambitious reclamation project in Bacoor will spell its doom.

Candinato’s family maintains nearly 3 hectares of mussel farm in Bacoor. She is also into buying and selling mussels and owns two small motorized fishing boats that she rents out to small fishermen.

With her small business, she has close to a hundred small vendors under her wing; all are selling mussel on a consignment basis.

“Some of them are older than me. Senior citizens,” she said, who all strongly felt the various threats to Bacoor’s small mussel industry. “If the industry dies, they are sure to suffer,” she said.

Hosts, hectarage

Oysters and mussels are two of Bacoor’s main products today still  despite dwindling production.

Bacoor takes pride in owning vast tracts of mussel and oyster farms that directly and indirectly benefit tens of thousands of families.

According to the Bacoor City Agriculture Office, individual oyster and mussel farmers can operate a 1-hectare farm. Each farm employs between five and seven individuals, Chua said.

The city also hosts oyster and mussel farmer-investors from other towns in Cavite, Laguna and Batangas.

Bacoor has a total of 957.25 hectares of coastal water and a total coastline of 5.78 kilometers. Of these, about 300 hectares are designated aquaculture area.

Currently, the city produces 6,000 gallons of mussels a day.

The figure is based on recorded daily production as obtained from two private and one public market, where harvests are regularly brought in by the city’s oyster and mussel farmers.

This does not include the huge volume of oysters and mussels that directly goes out to entrepreneurs who maintain oyster and mussel stalls in and outside the city, including Fisherman’s Wharf and fish ports in Parañaque City, Rosario, Cavite and the Navotas Fish Port.

A serious threat

MUSSEL traders in Bacoor had experienced huge setbacks caused by water pollution, as it affects the growth of this naturally occurring seafood.

As the price of mussel depends on its size, mussel growers or farmers observe that their products are no longer as “healthy” as they were when they started out in Bacoor.

But a more serious threat to Bacoor’s mussel industry, as in other areas, is the occurrence of red tide.

The BFAR occasionally issues Shellfish Bulletins advising the public whenever there’s red tide.

“When there’s red tide, we go home,” Dela Cruz said.

She also believes it has something to do with the rapid change of weather systems, which affects the growth of mussel—or worse—cause mussel to die.

“Whenever it suddenly rains, and the sun shines, the mussels we get are small because they are affected,” Dela Cruz added. “[I think this] has something to do with climate change.”

Maceda said that whenever there’s red tide, even areas that are unaffected by it suffer huge losses as the public would think that the oysters and mussels they are selling are affected, too.

“Whenever there are photographers and cameraman going here, we feel bothered thinking it maybe because there’s red tide,” she said.

Not sole problem

Believing that water pollution triggers the occurrence of red tide, Lager said such is precisely the reason they support the rehabilitation of Manila Bay.

However, she said rehabilitation should not lead to the relocation of oyster and mussel farms, as thousands of people whose income and livelihood are dependent on this cultured seafood will be adversely affected.

The occurrence of red tide is a major setback in the fisheries and aquaculture sector, particularly for oyster and mussel farmers.

From January to May alone, the BFAR has issued eight Shellfish Bulletins, which indicated that, based on laboratory tests it conducted, shellfish collected in a certain area are positive for paralytic shellfish poisons that are beyond the regulatory limit.

As such, it warns the public that shellfish gathered in an area affected by red tide are not safe for human consumption, thereby forcing mussel traders to stop doing business for days, or sometimes, weeks.

For Candinato, the intensifying typhoons brought about by climate change spell doom for mussel farm operators each time it strikes Cavite. For mussel growers, it means loss with zero chance of recovery—except for a few bamboo poles they must salvage in the open seas after the storm.

“Whenever there’s a typhoon, all our bamboo poles are wiped out. We lose everything,” she said. But strong typhoon is not the only problem mussel farm operators encounter.

Manila Bay cleanup

On January 27, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources launched a P47-billion, seven-year Manila Bay rehabilitation program. The massive rehabilitation activities aim to address the water pollution that has been bugging coastal waters in Manila Bay.

The high level of fecal coliform bacteria in Manila Bay poses a serious health risk not only to those who continue to swim and bathe in its waters, but also to consumers of fish and other seafood like oysters and mussels that are grown there.

Pollution caused by direct discharge of untreated wastewater and poor solid waste management are major contributors to the degradation of Manila Bay.

The waters of Bacoor, Cavite, are no exception, as water pollution knows no boundary.

Gil S. Jacinto, a professor at the Marine Science Institute-University of the Philippines Diliman, told the BusinessMirror the fact that the BFAR allows the growing of oysters and mussels means Bacoor’s waters is still suitable for aquaculture.

Jacinto added that the safety of the seafood produced for human consumption is, however, another issue.

A serious dilemma

Jacinto said that being filter-feeders, oysters and mussels have environmental benefits as they can actually help reduce water pollution.

“But, there’s a chance that too much pollution will eventually cause oysters and mussels to die. If that happens, it only means that the water is no longer fit for aquaculture,” he said on the sidelines of the Science Policy and Information Forum on the Sustainability of Manila Bay last May.

In Bacoor, the situation was aggravated by the Cavite Coastal Road Extension project, which directly affected the Bacoor shoreline.

Its construction in 2011 has since deprived the town’s shell and shellfish gatherers of their primary source of income and livelihood.

“Before, there was the halaan all over the shores of Bacoor. Women and children pick them up. But because of the Manila-Cavite Expressway project, it’s all gone,” National Federation of Small Fishermen’s Organization in the Philippines (Pamalakaya) Chairman Fernando Hicap said.

Hicap said while already experiencing economic hardships with the Cavitex project, fishermen and players in Bacoor’s mussel farming sector are facing yet another major threat that can eventually wipe out oystes and mussel farms and displace hundreds, if not thousands, of coastal families.

Yonder and here

THE city of Bacoor has a land-reclamation application filed at the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA), which has been empowered by President Duterte to decide on the fate of these land-reclamation projects after he signed Executive Order 74 on February 4.

EO 74 repealed EO 798 s. 2009 and EO 145 s. of 2013, and subsequently transferring the PRA to the Office of the President. The order also delegated to the PRA Governing Board the power of the President to approve reclamation projects.

The application for the P42-billion Bacoor Reclamation and Development Project will involve dump-and-fill activities that will expand the city’s land territory over a 320-hectare coastal area as part of the plan to erect a commercial and business district in Manila Bay.

The project is expected to lure investors, create jobs and livelihood opportunities and, hence, generating more revenues for the city.

The project, however, will directly affect over a hundred fishermen and mussel farm operators, including informal-settler families who would have to be relocated should the project push through.

A document acquired from the DENR said the proposed project will include five reclaimed areas, four inland reclamation islands behind Cavitex with an aggregate area of 90 hectares and one outer island north of Cavitex with an area of 230 hectares.

Last year the DENR conducted the “public scoping” to get inputs from would-be affected communities.

Uprooted, unemployed

Allan Guevarra Chua, Bacoor City Agriculture officer-in-charge, told the BusinessMirror “the land-reclamation project, if it pushes through, will cover a total of 320 hectares of coastal and marine areas, of which 100 to 150 hectares of oyster and mussel farms will have to go.”

With 150 hectares of oyster and mussel farms to be affected by the land-reclamation project, around 1,000 individuals stand to lose employment.

Nevertheless, Chua is optimistic that Bacoor City will retain its identity as one of the major producers of oysters and mussels in Luzon.

He said the City Fisheries Aquatic Resource Management Council of Bacoor (CFARMC) and Mayor Lani Mercado-Revilla intend to transfer would-be affected farms through re-zoning in other locations so as not to affect the city’s oyster and mussel production capacity.

Chua added he will also propose that the CFARMC come up with a resolution designating what remains of Bacoor’s coastal waters for aquaculture production.

As for the coastal families, he said they will have to be relocated as part of the ongoing rehabilitation of Manila Bay where informal-settler families would be moved away from so-called danger zones.

Getting relocated

THE relocation of informal settler families, Chua said, is inevitable because it is part of the rehabilitation of Manila Bay as ordered by the Manila Bay Task Force.

“Those who will be affected will be transferred to a relocation site—a Fisherman’s Village to be constructed within Bacoor,” he added.

Informal settler families from the city’s coastal areas—such as those victimized by fire and those affected by flooding—have agreed to transfer to a government relocation site, he said.

According to Chua, residents are supportive of the land-reclamation project and the actress-turned politician’s development agenda for Bacoor.

“Some residents have even agreed and started to transfer to a relocation site of the NHA [National Housing Authority] in Naic, Cavite,” he said.

There are more than 20 other proposed land-reclamation projects application filed before the PRA that are in various stages of development.

While the PRA is the sole authority with the power to approve or reject land-reclamation projects, the DENR is not keen on releasing the Environmental Clearance Certificate or Area Clearance for Manila Bay land-reclamation projects.

A steady increase

The Bacoor’s oyster and mussel farming sector mirrors a situation across the country: the Philippines is already a major exporter of fish and other seafood.

Oyster and mussel production in the Philippines, however, remains small despite its vast potential, yet a steady increase is observed in areas where mussel farms are on the rise.

According to the BFAR, the volume of mussel production in 2018 was estimated at 26.30 thousand metric tons, 36.93 percent higher from 2017 level of 19.21 thousand metric tons.

The growth has been observed for the past three years.

The top mussel-producing regions were Western Visayas, Region 4A and Eastern Visayas with a combined share of 93 percent.

While Bacoor is now a bustling city, it remains a major producer of oysters and mussels.

Given the much-needed shot in the arm, a boost from the BFAR and Bacoor LGU, the oyster and mussel industry can help sustain the city’s growth and development. Doing so also means continuously employing thousands of marginalized women who have been empowered by its small mussel farming sector that Bacoor is known for. (end)