Penman No. 318: Mysteries of Fish

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Penman for Monday, September 10, 2018

 

I’VE OFTEN written and spoken about how—despite the fact that we inhabit an archipelago of over 7,000 islands, bordered on all sides by the sea, and comprising one of the longest coastlines in the world—we seem to have very little by way of a maritime literature. By this I mean novels, stories, poems, and plays that have the sea as a central element, beyond serving as a romantic backdrop.

There’s a whole economy and culture to be found in our relationship with the sea, but much of this has been lost to a metropolitan generation bred on canned tuna and Starbucks coffee. Even among my students, I can count on my fingers the number of people who’ve taken a boat ride longer than a spin around a lake or the short hop from Caticlan to Boracay.

I myself was born in a house a stone’s throw from the beach, in a village on an island far from Manila, so the sea has never been far from my mind and imagination. I dream about it constantly, with recurrent images of huge waves rolling and breaking on the shore, and I as a boy walking on the sand with my father, now long gone.

But I too have to admit that save for a few scenes and the opening chapter of my novel in progress, the sea has figured minimally in my fiction. That’s probably because I feel responsible for creating credible characters whose lives are inextricably waterbound, and haven’t felt confident enough to do justice to the task. The fact is, we’ve lost touch with our marine heritage, which is supremely ironic given how Filipinos have distinguished themselves as seafarers, and how many Filipinos depend on the sea for a living.

This was much on my mind two weeks ago when I flew to Iloilo to attend the formal investiture of Dr. Ricardo P. Babaran as the tenth Chancellor of the University of the Philippines-Visayas. A fisheries expert and nautical engineer, Ric recounted how, as a young boy far up north in Cagayan, he enjoyed going out to sea and to the river to fish.

“My fishing buddies generally used earthworms as bait, but they sometimes used live crickets using different fishing gear. As a young fisher, I observed that using either crickets or earthworms yielded different outcomes—certain fish seemed to prefer one or the other—but my fisher friends were never able to explain to me why. This mystery bothered me for a long time,” he told us.

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Ric left Cagayan to study Fisheries in UP Diliman, and had to deal with the derision of other people who wondered “why Fisheries students needed four years just to learn how to capture fish with hook and line.” Even now, he says, this misappreciation of Fisheries partly explains why “fish-based industries are faring poorly in the Philippines.” (Indeed, an economist I know has pointed out that the recent spike in prices can be traced to some degree to a shortage of fish.)

Ric went on to take an MS in naval architecture and ocean engineering at the University of Washington, and then his PhD in Fisheries Science at Kagoshima University. It was in Japan where, Ric says, he finally found the answer to his childhood mystery: “I learned that catfish and mudfish responded differently to earthworms and crickets because of a process called chemo-reception.”

Dr. Babaran’s investiture was attended by many guests, including many academic officials and luminaries, but several of them stood out, for different reasons. Among them was Dr.  Loel Losanes, a UPV alumnus and the Filipino head of Japan’s Hikari Corporation, probably the largest producer of South Sea pearls in the world.

Just as significant was the presence of members of the Kamamado fishers group from Guimaras, many of them elderly women who, Ric noted, “supplement their daily income with the P40 they get from selling the equivalent of two-liter-sized containers of captured cardinal fish. Through this group, we will undertake a program that will promote responsible fisheries, which I believe will position the Philippines more strategically in the relation to the ornamental fish industry that generates $7 to 8 billion annually.”

I’m confident that the programs of Chancellor Babaran and UPV will improve the livelihoods of millions of our shore-dwelling countrymen, but I’m even more hopeful that a deeper and broader awareness of the importance of the sea in our lives will soon emerge, if only because of the crisis now roiling in the waters around us. (“About a third of our fish catch comes from the West Philippine Sea,” Ric told me.)

And I’m especially happy that a place like UPV exists to mind our waters. A young PhD in UPV, Noel Ferriols, recalled how he was convinced to study in UPV instead of Manila when he and his mother visited the campus in Miag-ao, which specializes in fisheries. “I was amazed when the security guard told me the scientific name of a certain kind of fish,” Noel said. “I thought to myself, if this is a place where even security guards can recite the genus and species of a fish, then it’s where I want to be.”