Plandico Bay

I retrieved this investigative report written by Diosa Labiste for the Philippine Daily Inquirer sometime in 2001. It mentions the involvement of Raul Banias and Jett Rojas in fishpen operations in Plandico Bay, which I mentioned in my previous blog post:

Bay fish pens keep villages at low ebb”

by Ma. Diosa Labiste, Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 29, 2001
Privately owned fish pens and cages are choking the Plandico Bay in northern Iloilo and the source of livelihood of some 500 families of fishers and shellfish and fry gatherers. Three of the structures, which cover almost two-thirds of the bay, are being blamed not only for depriving the communities food and access to the bay but also for the rise in pollution and siltation in the water body. Brothers Juan and Julio Alvarez own two of the pens, and the third, the fishers claimed, is jointly owned by Mayors Jett Roxas of Ajuy and Raul Banias of Concepcion. The two officials have strongly denied the accusation.

Leaders of the fishing communities recently asked the provincial board to help rid the bay of the fish cages and pens. If these were not dismantled, they said, the bay’s resources would slowly dwindle, its waters would remain polluted and the small fishers would go hungry. The 160-hectare Plandico Bay lies between the territorial waters of Concepcion and Ajuy and drains into the Visayan Sea through an opening of a hundred meters. Also called the Tinagong Dagat (“The Hidden Sea” -gss) by the residents, the bay is ringed by mountains, making it suitable to year-round fishing. During high-tide, the whole bay is submerged. When the tide ebbs, especially during the monsoon months, only 30 hectares of the bay area is submerged.

The Plandico Bay serves as the fishing ground of some 500 families in Barangay Silagon in Ajuy and the adjoining villages of Nino, Plandico, Tamisaac and Macalbang in Concepcion. Families also gather clams and other shellfish, as well as catch shrimp and crabs that are abundant in the mangrove areas during low tide.

After years of trial and error, a group of fishers in 1997 pioneered the raising of bangus (milkfish) in fish pens in the bay. With 202 members, they organized the Silagon Multi-purpose Cooperative. Bangus raising, timed during the monsoon months (October to February), proved to be lucrative. The cooperative earned more than P500,000 and many members received P20,000 each in dividends.

News of the highly profitable venture spread and three more fish pens were built, but this time, by private investors. Unlike the cooperative, which gives the bay a rest after one crop season, the privately owned pens and fish cages squat inside the bay all year to harvest bangus. The presence of the new structures sparked resentment among the cooperative members and the residents. In a petition signed by more than 400 members, the cooperative blamed the private fish pens for preventing them access to the bay to fish and transport products….

…The presence of the fish pens at the bay, considered a natural harbor, has kept away fishing boats and bancas that used to beach and take shelter from strong waves and winds during typhoons. The cooperative complained that the fish pens at the mouth of the bay were blocking fish coming in to spawn. At least 75 percent of the bay entrance is obstructed by a network of bamboo poles and the nets of fish pens.

The presence of fish pens has turned the waters murky, raising fears that a fish kill may not be far-fetched. Only a fraction of the feeds given to milkfish is eaten because the feeds sink too fast, are too fine or are not easily digested. The cooperative computed that every year, about 880 tons of wasted commercial bangus feeds are deposited at the bottom of the bay. The concentration of feeds can use up a lot of oxygen….

….The provincial board has yet to release its findings, which will be submitted to Governor Niel Tupas Sr. for appropriate action. Yet, the board members agreed that the fish pens at the mouth of the bay should be dismantled to provide relief to the fishing ground. Under the Philippine Fishery Code of 1998, only 10 percent of the bay is allowed for fish farming. In the case of the Plandico Bay, the board members noted that the pens and cages already covered 70 percent of the bay….

Conflict of interest

One of the first statements that came from the new Iloilo provincial administrator was to belittle the accomplishments of former Governor Niel Tupas Sr. in the campaign against illegal fishing.  In his words, Dr. Raul Banias described the anti-illegal fishing campaign as nothing but an empty boast, pointing to the beat-up Bantay Dagat patrol boat as evidence. He also cited a decline in apprehensions during the last two years of the Tupas administration as an eloquent manifestation of such failure.

What Dr. Banias omitted was the fact that the provincial government was literally crippled by the incessant assaults staged by former Vice Governor Rolex Suplico and his allies in the Sangguniang Panlalawigan during the last three years. Fuel expenses were slashed, no money was allocated for boat repairs, and virtually every support needed to mount an effective campaign was wiped out from the face of the province’s budget. The Tupas administration had nothing to work with in terms of logistical support.

Even then, the anti-illegal fishing task force struggled to carry on its mission in stopping the destructive activities of illegal fishing operators in the seas of Iloilo province, particularly in the northern portion that includes Carles, Concepcion, Ajuy and San Dionisio where the richest fishing grounds are situated. Gov. Tupas tapped the help of barangay officials in Concepcion and Carles in this fight and released financial assistance to their LGUs to be able to build their own patrol boats. This is the reason that contrary to the lie peddled by Banias, illegal fishing was still kept to a minimum despite the imposed obstacles. No less than Dr. Ildefonso Toledo, provincial agriculturist, released statistics to show a different picture.

But there was one thing that Banias said that disturbed me. He was personally taking over the anti-illegal fishing campaign with a vow to mount an honest-to-goodness enforcement drive. What he is not saying is that this puts him in a conflict-of-interest situation. Not too many people know this, but Banias is engaged in the fish trading business. This started when he was still vice mayor of Concepcion where he controlled the buying-and-selling of marine products. During this time (until he became mayor), Banias didn’t raise even a whisper against illegal fishing. In fact, many of the illegal fishing operators were his suppliers. Several times when he was mayor of Concepcion, Gov. Tupas admonished him to stop his friends from plying their trade. Nothing happened. The seas of Concepcion proliferated with illegal fishing activities during his incumbency.

Now that he is provincial administrator, and poised to take control over the anti-illegal fishing campaign, Dr. Banias will enjoy unbridled monopoly over the fishing industry in Iloilo province. I challenge him to make a disclosure about his business interests in fish trading, to include his proprietary stake in a giant fishpen in the Plandico Bay between Concepcion and Ajuy in partnership with board member Jett Rojas.  This fishpen was subject of complaints from small fishermen for a long time. Two years ago, the DPWH had ordered it demolished, but Banias used his clout as Presidential Assistant to block that move. The fish business has made Banias rich.

I have a nasty feeling that allowing Dr. Banias to handle illegal fishing would be like giving the Kuratong Baleleng gang the combination to every bank vault in the country so they will just have to walk in and grab the cash without firing a shot.