From the trap

By Anthony Into

It’s still five in the morning, yet the Padal brothers have already prepared for the day’s work. Dennis starts the engine of the double outrigger while Dave waits in the shin-deep water below the old ragged bridge at the Tugbungan – an area in Del Pilar where piscatory boats dock. This barangay is part of Socorro, an island-cum-town snugged among a crystal cave, a labyrinth-like cove, and a scattering of cupcake-shaped islets in the province of Surigao del Norte and located southwest of the country’s surfing omphalos, Siargao. Today, Ronald (my host) and I are going to accompany the two fishermen to observe them as they carry out what is considered the most legal method of fishing. Our group is headed east to a fishing ground near Anahawan, an island about 17 kilometers offshore.

The boat shoves off and moves smoothly along the Poblacion Waterway Inlet navigating past the thick lines of palm trees and riverine mangrove forest. Next is a view of stilt houses in Sitio Lamak, a territorial enclave in Rizal (largest barangay in Socorro), where a few early-risers can be seen doing their morning chores. We follow a long curved route to the left and before we know it, we get ushered to the vasty blue. Up ahead, the blazing ball of fire is persistently peeking through the horizontal strips of clouds. “Oh!” I exclaim faintly, clutching my seat like a shot. The ride is getting bumpy. Our boat bounces in rhythmic motion as its bow cuts through the moderate swells leaving symmetrical spumes behind.

About a half-hour has passed. The sun, which has outshined the cloud formation blocking its way, now radiates a white-yellow-orange nimbus making the pelagic surroundings brighter by the minute. The siblings seem to have agreed on what to wear today (or it could be their version of a fisher’s garb). Each is clad in a self-colored sweater and a pair of sweatpants – all oversized to enable ease of movement. Completing the getup is a ninja mask ingeniously created by putting a T-shirt over the head, sticking the sleeves out and half-knot tying both ends at the back, then adjusting the garment in such a way that the wearer’s eyes are within the shirt’s head hole.

Fish traps can be seen at almost every house in Del Pilar. Around 90% of families in the area depend on “bobo” fishing for their livelihood.

Shortly thereafter, Dennis downshifts the boat. Examines the mountain range from afar, his glabella furrowing like he’s analyzing something. It doesn’t take long before he signals Dave who then hurriedly hurls into the sea an orange rope with a hook-shaped steel attached to its end. An average-sized rock has been tied to the affixment apparently to make it even heavier and sink easily into the deep. With the rope over his shoulders, Dennis stands still, trying to “touch” the sea floor (approx. 40 meters below) using the hook. Moments later, he kills the engine and nods at his older brother yet again to tell the latter he has found “it”. The tandem rushes to the stern. They sprawl on the narrow wooden platform, Dave facing his brother’s back. After a split second of psyching up, they begin heaving the rope in sync. Their deformed countenance only suggests how heavy that thing is.

The repetitive tugging continues until the hook resurfaces. It has entangled another rope – a smaller one – which Dave briskly brings to the front and ties to the cross arms of the right outrigger. Another routine of hauling and distorted faces ensues. This time around though, they are doing it in alternate fashion. One pulling after the other. A tiny rubber cut from worn-out slippers is placed in between their palm and the rope to avoid inadvertently scraping their skin.

From where I stand, I can see through the turquoise water what appears to be a greenish cage coming towards them. “Here it comes!,” hollers Ronald, giving me a cue to be ready with my camera. At this point, I am torn between taking pictures and just watching what’s going on in front of me. I choose the latter. As the cage emerges out of the water, the fish can be seen through the holes twisting from side to side like wrigglers. “Two kilos, give or take,” I say to myself, wide-eyed and still can’t take my eyes off the fish pot as Dennis brings it amidships. He then opens a “secret” door at the base of the cage and shakes it. The flopping fish descend to the huge styrofoam box. “One and a half,” I promptly change my answer, delighted at how fast I’ve come up with a guessing game. While Dennis puts the empty cage aside, Dave is nonstop and does more of the tugging this time, bending his torso backward for counterbalance. After all the hollow cages have been laid on the projecting outriggers, Dave tosses the cages individually back to the sea as the motorboat slowly moves forward. That’s just a warm-up. There are six more sets of fish pots to “harvest.”

Trap story

A resident of Del Pilar making a “bobo” trap from bamboo slats.

A typical day in Del Pilar involves seeing locals making fish pots right at their front porch. Fish pots, aka “bobo” traps are fashioned from interwoven bamboo slats. The weaving procedure is pretty much straightforward. First, the bamboo strips are placed flat on the ground one inch apart. Then a strip is interlaced perpendicularly through the previously laid ones. A strip after another. The interweaving eventually results into a mesh-like sheet. Multi-shaped sheets are nylon-tied and assembled together to form a 3.0 ft x 2.0 ft x 0.7 ft cuboid structure with its top curving outward. Subsequently, branches of a certain tree are bound on its base perimeter. Still dark-green in color on one side, the unfinished bamboo construction is then left out in the sun to dry. Drying, according to the locals, makes the traps less brittle and long-lasting (a maximum of four months).

Once the drying process is done, it’s time to build the entrance. After forming a triangular grid-patterned sheet into a cone, it is positioned in the enclosure lengthways from the edge to the mid-part. Its exterior opening is wider yet the hole tapers towards the end where a second opening is located. This smaller aperture is facing downward and is shaped like a double-pointed oval. Viewed from the inside, this hole resembles the closed leaf of a Venus flytrap owing to the bamboo strip extensions.

There’s an anecdote about a Tagalog-speaking tourist who once visited Del Pilar. He happened to see the fish pots so he asked the residents what they were for. Upon hearing the purpose of the cages, he said something like “Bobo naman pala yung mga isdang pumapasok dyan.” (The fish that go inside that cage are stupid.) So that’s how the bamboo construction earned the monicker “bobo”. But the fishermen have long developed an underlying theory. They say that from the time these traps are lowered onto the subjacent seabed (fish cages are “soaked” for a minimum of three days), algae start to grow on them. Thinking that these holey structures are just ordinary corals, the unsuspecting fish would go near them and feed on the plant-like organisms. And before they know it (they don’t), they have already finned their way through the passage and into the cage.

Unfinished “bobo” traps being dried at a basketball court. Drying makes the trap less brittle and long-lasting.

None of the village people knew the exact into existence. But Hertinito Abao, 60, can give an estimate. “I think it’s 1956 or earlier than that. I remember back then when my father would go fishing, he’d let me tag along,” he recalls. During those years, the fishermen would lower the traps one by one sans rope; however, that approach entailed a pick-and-shovel task during retrieval. In the early 1970s, an innovative Leodor Gede, now 69 years old, initiated the use of bahayan – a set of 10 to 14 traps all connected to a single 200-meter rope and approximately 15 meters apart from each other. “It has proven to be efficient since many fish can be caught and it’s easy to search for in the ocean,” affirms the retired fisher. A 14-piece string of “bobo” pots costs a little over P2,000.

Human GPS

These “bobo” fishermen live by the Surigaonon aphorism “Sa lawod itagak, sa bukid pangitaon” (Drop it into the deep sea, but look for it in the mountains).

Armed with only a pair of spherical organ of sight, they would know the location of the fish pots they have lowered a few days ago – without poles or buoys as indication. The 44-year old Richard Skaj gives me a thorough explanation: “We just observe the mountains from afar. Look for something, say, a solo tree or the peak of a mountain. Turn our head to the left or right and look for another object.” They simply refer to it as the “iskwala” (try square) technique as one would need an imaginary try square or the letter “L” in the process. It’s like finding the point (spot) using the coordinates (objects) from the two perpendicular directions absent any global positioning system (GPS) device. “Once we have determined the ‘spot’, that’s where we’ll drop the cages. That’s also where we’ll return three days later to retrieve them,” he continues.

Dave and Dennis Padal in action.

Richard, who frequents the plentiful fishing ground close to Caob, an island about 30 kilometers south of Socorro, reveals that he’s been using “bobo” traps for more than 15 years and never has the “iskwala” technique failed him. “We also use that approach to determine the right place to fish. We know if the seabed is sandy or rocky. We know where the coral reefs are located and maintain a distance of at least 30 meters away from them,” he imparts.

During the Amihan season, particularly from November to February, they rarely go fishing as the mountains are usually wreathed in fog or there’s zero visibility out in the ocean. “We just stay home because it’s pointless to go there,” he further tells.

Let there be fish

I try to peep at the container. It’s at least a quarter full. After Dennis empties another cage into it, I attempt to break the silence by jesting, “There’s alot of stupid fish here!” They chuckle. Dave is quick at reacting, “That’s what we call the will of God because we don’t coerce the fish to get inside.” He’s got a point. They don’t even bait the traps to lure the finny aquatic animals in. Just a plain entrapping box. Such unsophistication earned the approval and support of the local government deeming the piscatorial method sustainable along with other traditional ways like angling, netting, and spearfishing.

The flopping fish descend into the styrofoam container. Around 95% of the finfish caught in traps are longspine emperors, locally known as mayad-as.

The waters surrounding Socorro has a profusion of marine life especially the favorite fishing loci near Caob and Anahawan, thanks to the presence of mangrove forests in the coastal areas and the abundance of coral reefs and seagrass beds – innate trademarks of Surigao del Norte. As disclosed by the fishermen, a regular-sized “bobo” can trap up to 10kg of fish while an end-of-day catch can reach at least 100kg comprising a wide piscine variety, e.g., sweetlips, wrasses, emperors, damsels, and groupers, among others. Since the fish pot is enterable, unexpected “visitors” get snared on some occasions. These include crabs, lobsters, octopuses, eels, and even stingrays. One fisherman shares how a young 20-kg shark got trapped in his huge “bobo” once.

Around 95% of the finfish caught in traps are longspine emperors, locally known as mayad-as. Found in sandy areas close to reefs, these scaly scavengers feed chiefly on echinoderms, crustaceans and mollusks – also sand-dwellers. Mayad-as is non-migratory which explains its thick-on-the-ground supply all year round. Thankful for the ample finned provision, the village people of Del Pilar celebrate Mayad-as Festival every 28th of April during which they hold a simple gathering at the basketball court bringing in different dishes of mayad-as for everyone to feast on. Market prices of trap-caught fish range from R100 to R600 per kilogram, depending on the variety. Due to its plenitude, mayad-as is the least expensive at P100 a kilo.

Sea-ing through

With a population of over 600, roughly 90% of families in Del Pilar depend on “bobo” fishing for their livelihood. In fact, it is the bread and butter of the Padal family.

Dave and Dennis (two of six siblings) learned the trade from their father when they were still teeners. The two now have a family of their own but what’s commendable is that they still share a third of their earnings to their parents on a regular basis. “I’m so lucky to have sons like them,” says the 61-year old Dormelito Padal who has stopped fishing since he got stricken with diabetes last year. Rebecca Padal, 52, also confides, “They’re the ones that take care of us now, that’s why we’re deeply thankful for them.” The hardworking mother is also into small-scale fish-drying business to augment their income.

According to Jay Rosas in his Philippine Daily Inquirer article dated Aug. 11, 2015, three community organizations (which the locals call “co-op”) received a World Bank-provided fund worth R250,000 through the Community Fund for Agriculture Development (CFAD) of the Mindanao Rural Development Program (MRDP) in 2010. “It enabled us to purchase materials needed to make motorized outriggers, fishing nets, and additional “bobo” traps which we utilized for fishing,” relates Aida Mante, an active member of Makugihon (hardworking) group. The fishermen then gave a portion of their earnings to the “co-op” totaling R6,000 or so, which the members used to put up a makeshift “variety store” selling basic commodities. Proceeds of such initiative then served as their revolving fund.

After emptying the cages, they are tossed back to the sea one by one.

One perk of being a “co-op” member is the eligibility to loan some cash especially during Amihan months when it’s difficult, if not impossible, to head seaward due to inclement weather. But the members admit that, albeit helpful, such privilege can sustain only a fraction of what they need to get through those tough times. “We hope for continued financial support for our source of living,” expresses Hertinito Abao, president of Makugihon group, bringing up the grassroots organizations’ request for supplementary funding in order to acquire new motorized boats and “bobo” traps.

(Fin)ish line

Using my body as a “sundial,” I try to estimate the time. It’s past nine, judging from the position of my shadow. Now, we’re on our way back to the coast to anchor – and call it a day. The two styrofoam boxes are almost filled to the brim which Ronald has estimated to be around 40kg. Such quantity of finfish translates into a gross income of almost R4,000. Not bad for a four-and-a-half-hour backbreaking routine, I think. After uttering words of gratitude to the two brothers for letting us tag along (and for handing us two plastic bags of fish gratis), we wade through the shallows and toward the shore. I glance back at Dave and Dennis who are occupied with mooring properly, their silhouette looks commanding against the sun’s rays. As the briny breeze blows on my face, a chord of appreciation starts emanating from within. Thank you, Neptune.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s April 2019 issue. 

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