AGAINST THE CURRENT: A woman’s struggle to protect the environment

The pristine beaches of Patar have been the harbor of dreams and home to memories of Jennifer Obinario. In her 32 years, the small town of Bolinao, Pangasinan has seen her first steps, has heard her first words, and has witnessed her fall in love.

When Jennifer heard of the news that a hatchery will be built in the town, she first felt fear of what might happen to her hometown. When she learned of the probable environmental effects of the project, her fear slowly turned to rage. All she wanted to do was to fight against the project and fight for her beloved abode.

“Hindi porke’t mapera sila, makakapagtayo na sila ng kahit anong gusto nilang ipatayo. Kasi ang inaalagan naman po namin ay ‘yung dagat,” she said.

Jennifer’s rage is shared by her family, including her 64 year old mother and her brother, a local councilor.  They took the streets in April 2016 together with other locals to protest against Feedmix Specialist Inc. II’s hatchery project.

Feedmix is a 20-year old integrated aquaculture company in the Philippines that produces feeds and raises fish and fish products for local and foreign markets.  It operates fishpens to raise tilapia and other commercial fish varieties in coastal areas in Northern Luzon. Its Bolinao hatchery project to be called the Cape Bolinao Sustainable Marine Finfish Hatchery and Eco-Learning Center would have its footprint at a 1.3-hectare coastal area of pristine white beaches.

Feedmix fishpens in Pangasinan. (Photo grabbed from Feedmix’s website.

In response to the rally held by Bolinao residents in April last year opposing the company’s project, Feedmix said the hatchery would have “an extensive water treatment system, which would be designed with multiple layers of sedimentation and natural bio-filters such as seaweeds and oysters—before the hatchery’s water is released back into the sea.”

“This makes both environmental and business sense, since the hatchery would rely on the same source of seawater to rear its marine life,” Alex Soriano, Feedmix vice president for business development, said in a statement.

Bolinao mayor Mayor Arnold Celeste for his part said the municipal council and the Patar village council approved the project after it went through public consultations.

Jennifer, her family and many other residents are not convinced. She said her husband Maxie told her about the devastating effects Feedmix’s other hatchery in another town. She said Maxie worked in Labrador, a town in Pangasinan which is also known for its beaches, near a hatchery which according to him is also owned by Feedmix. After a few months, he went back to Patar bringing with him bitter stories of the environmental destruction the hatchery wrought in Labrador. The once crystal-clear waters near the hatchery became hazy. The once lively habitat of fishes and corals turned into a sea of jetsam and flotsam of dead organisms.

This is what Jennifer precisely fears: that, one day, their very source of food and income would be destroyed by profit-hungry businesses.

 “Ngayon nga, kung anu-ano na po ‘yung nakakain namin na nakukuha sa dagat.  Baka after five years, kapag natuloy nga ‘yung hatchery, baka hindi na makain ang galing sa aming dagat,” Jennifer said.

Jennifer’s family are fisherfolks and she herself became one after high school. During off seasons, when there are few customers in their small beach resort, she becomes a maninisid (diver) to catch fish and other marine species. A strong swimmer who could dive even when the waves are rough, she uses a long and sharp spear with goggles as her only protective gear. She loves what she does and she is good at it.

The proposed hatchery, however, poses threats to their livelihood from harmful chemicals. Jennifer fears the rich biodiversity in the sea would be wiped out by the hatchery. When that happens, her family could no longer maintain the livelihood that has sustained them for generations, she said.

Even now, things are starting to become more difficult and there are only spots where dive fishing is still good, Jennifer said.

“Wala na talagang isda doon sa tabi, andoon na sa laot. ‘Pag ganoon ‘yung nangyari dito, e ‘di wala na. Kapag ako naninisid diyan lang, diyan lang sa may bato talaga. Marami pa namang isda diyan,” she said.

Jennifer usually catches danggit and octopus. When the waves are strong and the fishes are being washed ashore, she is able to catch at least three kilos. On lean days, when the wind is not on their side, she just gets around a kilo.

There are always customers ready to buy Jennifer’s catch.

Kung dayuhan (ang bibili), mas mahal. Nasa P130 hanggang P150 kada kilo. Kapag taga-rito lang sa amin, P80 hanggang P100 lang po,” Jennifer said.

It is not only the possibility of losing the bounty from the sea that Jennifer fears. She is also worried of what the hatchery may do to their small resort business.

‘Yung beach po, baka ‘yung nililiguan po ng mga customer po naming ay baka madumi na kung matuloy itong hatchery,” she said.

Jennifer rejects Feedmix’s assurances that tourism and its hatchery could coexist. She believes tourists would only visit clean resorts.

“‘Di po ba pupunta sila sa dagat para mag-snorkeling? Mas maganda naman ‘yung mag-snorkel sila dito sa dagat kaysa titingin sila doon sa pinapalaking isda ng hatchery,” she said.

Jennifer said her family wants to preserve Bolinao’s picture-perfect beaches and its crystal clear sea. She said they will keep on opposing the hatchery project for them to keep their livelihood and pass this on to Bolinao’s future generations.

“Ayaw po namin masira ‘yung Bolinao. Siyempre, andoon ‘yung pagmamahal namin sa aming lugar,” she said. #