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‘Maliputo,’ ‘tawilis’ and poisoned waters

In this season of huge fishkills in Taal Lake in Batangas, and Bolinao and Anda in Pangasinan, we again confront the grim reality of food gone to waste and environmental devastation caused by human greed.

Bolinao was that brave little town that stood up to big foreign investors that planned to put up a cement plant and mine its limestone deposits in the mid-1990s. The project would have ruined a rich marine habitat and changed the town’s way of life. I went there and saw for myself why the people of Bolinao were jealously protecting the land and the sea. I wrote a three-part series on the raging issue. Cape Bolinao is a special place like no other, the reason why the UP Marine Research Institute is there.

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Years later, beach resorts and fish pens would proliferate with little regulation, making the Bolinao landscape unsightly. The fishkills in the recent years proved that fish cage owners have continued to push the limits, breeding too much in too little space, dumping too much feed to hasten growth. All for profit. In the end, the greedy have everything to lose. But to the bottom they take with them the rest of the fishing industry, even the small fishers who subsist on their daily catch of fish that thrive happily in the open sea. Who wants to buy and eat fish—the cultured bangus especially—nowadays?

For a couple of decades now my diet has consisted mainly of fish and veggies. I take some meat and chicken only when I eat out, which is not often, or when there is not much to choose from on the buffet table. I was born in a historic coastal town in Iloilo where fresh fish was aplenty, and fish preserved in ice or ilado (from the Spanish word hielo or ice) was considered second class. I have tasted the best and the freshest the sea has to offer.

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Massive fishkills are upon us now. Images of tons of bangus floating belly up and rotting away, coastal residents wearing masks and truckloads of dead fish being buried should haunt those who have caused this and give them nightmares. The Inquirer’s editorial two days ago, (“Cosmic justice,” 6/7/2011) said it fiercely. It was about insatiable greed, neglect, abuse and—at last—nature striking back in a most nauseating way.

Deserving immediate attention are the indigenous species in our rivers and lakes, the areas of the fishkill. These species could go extinct because of foreign species that take over their habitat. They are also threatened by the fishkill. Take the case of the tabios or sinarapan (the world’s smallest edible fish) of Lake Buhi in Camarines Sur, and the tawilis and maliputo of Taal Lake. They could go the way of the pre-historic acanthodians and placoderms if nothing is done to preserve them.

During a trip to Taal town (one of my favorite places in Batangas), one elder I met told me in jest that the easiest way to buy maliputo is to brandish a cuarenta y cinco (.45-caliber pistol). Maliputo is a prize catch because of its exquisite flavor and texture. I have tasted maliputo only twice in my life. To say it is delicious is an understatement. The lake water’s volcanic quality must have contributed to the fish’s flavor. Make mine grilled to perfection.

Tawilis (fresh water sardines not found anywhere in Asia) in Taal Lake aren’t as hard to come by as maliputo. Bottled tawilis in olive oil, done Spanish-sardines style, are now available in some delis. In Tagaytay City, you can buy from the Good Shepherd Convent store by the ridge where the view of Taal Lake and Volcano is most awesome. When you behold that scenery from there you wouldn’t suspect that there is a crisis in the lake below.

I did some research on the maliputo and was once again fascinated by the secrets of Taal lake. A good book on the lake is “The Mysteries of Taal: A Philippine volcano and lake, her sea life and lost towns” (Bookmark) by long-time Philippine resident, researcher, diver and award-winning writer Thomas R. Hargrove. (His book based on his ordeal as a kidnap victim of narco-guerrillas of Colombia became the basis of the movie “Proof of Life”.)

Chapter 7, “Sea snakes and sardines, sharks and sponges—the incredible marine life of Lake Taal,” is as mystifying as it is informative. “Lake Taal’s marine life draws me back, almost like those mysterious towns that sank so long ago. Her deep waters are classified as fresh today—but Taal protects life that Nature intended only for the sea.”

Marine biologists, geologists, archaeologists, historians and storytellers would find in the bosom of the lake treasure troves of information lost in time. But there is only so much that a wonder like Taal Lake and Volcano can take from marauding humans. When the tawilis and maliputo become very rare, we know something is going awry.

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Maliputo, I learned from my readings, belongs to the caringidae family. Its scientific name is caranx ignobilis. It is said to be a variety of talakitok which thrives in the brackish water of river mouths and mangroves. Talakitok caught in the Pasipit River that leads to the lake is called maliputong labas (maliputo from outside).

It is said that the real maliputo is found in Taal Lake and is called maliputong loob (maliputo from inside). This is the variety that would call for a cuarenta y cinco.

I also read that an enterprising woman, an aquaculturist named Maria Theresa Mutia, has found a way of saving the maliputo from extinction. After a decade of research, she and her team succeeded in making the fish breed in captivity in Botong, a seaside barrio in Taal. It’s been decades since I visited Botong.

Words from Hargrove: “Lake Taal has her secrets and her underwater ghost towns—but she makes you earn the right to share them.”

Send feedback to [email protected] or www.ceresdoyo.com

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TAGS: fish kill, Fishing industry, maliputo, rare fishes, sinarapan, Taal Lake, tabios, tawilis
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