THINK ON THESE: Henrylito Tacio

I had been to Tagaytay City several times.  This was when I worked at the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) in Silang, Cavite.  But the very first time I visited the place was when my friend, Gregory C. Ira and his beautiful wife, Joy, brought me a few days before I left IIRR (where I attended a “writeshop” on sustainable farming systems).

Last year, I had the pleasure of returning to the place together with a group of journalists (print, radio and television) from Davao City after visiting some farms in nearby areas (thanks to Noel T. Provido).  The place is now too crowded; gone were the pine trees I used to enjoy watching.

Tagaytay, which is only 59 kilometers away from Manila via Aguinaldo Highway, is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations because of its scenery and cooler climate provided by its high altitude. 

Another good thing about Tagaytay, which is part of Cavite, is that it overlooks Taal Lake in Batangas and provides views of Taal Volcano Island.  Now, Taal Lake is the reason why I am writing this.

It is only in Taal Lake where you can find tawilis, a freshwater fish which looks like “tamban,” which my mother used to fry.  Sorry, I haven’t tried tawilis yet, but people who have tasted the fish said it is really mouth-watering.

Dr. Aristotle Carandang, chief science research specialist at the Department of Science and Technology, considers tawilis as “the pride of Southern Tagalog.”  He says, “Tawilis is best eaten as dried (for frying), deep fried (eat everything), and as pinais (paksiw na nakabalot sa dahon ng saging.  There are also bottled tawilis sold in supermarkets.”

“I love the deep-fried style,” says Dr. Richard T. Mata, a physician from Panabo City who never fails to order tawilis whenever he goes to Tagaytay.  “They always say that the beauty of tawilis is that you can eat the whole fish without removing the bones.  My son loves it, too.”

I am not sure if I can have a tawilis soon.  Almost all dailies in Metro Manila carried a news item recently reporting that the endemic tawilis (scientific name: Sardinella tawilis) is on the verge of extinction.  The Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has included the freshwater fish as endangered species.

“Within Lake Taal, there are major threats to fish diversity and this species due to overexploitation, pollution and competition and/or predation with introduced fishes, resulting in continuing declines in habitat quality and number of mature individuals,” the IUCN said in a statement.

Late last year, the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity reported that the Ark of Taste International has listed tawilis in the “catalogue of endangered heritage foods of the Philippines.”

A species is considered endangered when it is seriously at risk of extinction.  The classification is indeed a “wake-up call,” to quote the words of Dr. Mudjekeewis Santos of the National Academy of Science and Technology, as tawilis can only be found in the Philippines and it is the only freshwater sardine in the world.

Although small, about six- to seven-inches long, tawilis is the most dominant fish catch in the lake.  The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Research (BFAR) said the fish is caught by gill net, beach seine, ring net and motorized push net.

Overfishing has been cited as one of the reasons why it has become endangered.  “The tawilis population has decreased by at least over 50%,” the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines (MWW) pointed out in an infographic that was posted in its Facebook account.

Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, the former executive director of the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development, agreed.  “The major cause of the drastic decline in the tawilis catch of the fisherfolk in the lake is overfishing, wherein the rate of human exploitation of the fish surpassed the ability of the fish to replenish itself.”

According to MWWP, the reported total catch of tawilis in Taal Lake was 1,672 metric tons in 1998.  The total catch of the fish dropped to 240 metric tons in 2005 and further dipped to 107 metric tons in 2010. 

The use of illegal fishing gear has also contributed to the fish’s demise.  “The illegal use of trawlers and ‘superlights’ to attract the fish at night in the past almost wiped out the species,” Dr. Guerrero claimed.

Something must be done to save the tawilis from extinction.  Or else, the country will lose an icon culturally, a significant fish historically and a big loss to Philippine cuisine.  “Ecologically, without tawilis, Taal Lake will become less biodiverse, unbalanced, and less resilient to environmental changes,” explains Dr. Arnel “AA” Yaptinchay, MWWP founder and director.

Once tawilis is gone from the waters of Taal Lake, it will be gone forever.  “If lost, it can never be replaced again,” Dr. Yaptinchay reminds.

Several things can be done to keep tawilis from thriving.  “Address all the threats simultaneously,” Dr. Yaptinchay suggests.  “Government needs to step in and regulate activities in the lake and manage fishing activities by introducing closed seasons for tawilis, and probably even a temporary ban until a non-determent finding is done.

“More biological and ecological studies should be conducted, especially in culturing the species,” he adds.