Saving San Pablo’s Seven Lakes

San Pablo City in Laguna province is famous for its seven lakes. The lakes are volcanic in origin, but the folklore handed down from one generation to another identifies a fairy or diwata as the one responsible for transforming an orchard or a garden into the lakes as punishment for the earth people when certain agreements were broken.

The seven lakes are: Sampaloc, Palacpaquen, Mohicap, Calibato, Bunot, Pandin, and Yambo. Just like any other body of water, the lakeshore area harbors human settlement. The lakes are sources of water for domestic consumption such as bathing or cooking, with a nearby spring as source of drinking water. The lakes are a source of food, a variety of fish, shrimps, and mollusks such as Corbicula, commonly called tulya. Parts of the lakes are navigable. The lakes traditionally have been a common resource for everyone, without any restrictions on their use; any member of the community can fish in them. But what are the consequences for a resource common to everyone if used without restrictions and corresponding responsibilities?

In the mid-1970s, aquaculture of Tilapia nilotica was introduced in the country as an alternative source of cheap protein to answer the needs of our growing population. The tilapia grew successfully in fish pens in Laguna Lake, and eventually, fish cages were set up in nearby Sampaloc Lake. Setting up fish cages, seeding them with tilapia fry, and feeding the fish up to the adult stage require a significant investment, affordable only by middle-class members of the community or outside investors. This permit system virtually converted 10-12% of the lake for private use.

The introduction of aquaculture to the lakes deprived the poorer members of the lakeshore community of access to the totality of the common resource for open fishing and navigation. With the increase in population over the years, deterioration of the seven lakes commenced because of aquaculture practices, effluents from households, nutrient run-off and siltation from agriculture, and effluents from small-scale industries. The sustainability of the lakes was threatened. Would the lakes, through ecological succession, just be converted into a wetland dominated by water hyacinths and the edible kangkong?

Aquaculture in Philippine lakes was introduced by BFAR in the mid-1970s during the Marcos regime. With the projected growth of the country’s population and the consequent demand for food, Tilapia nilotica was brought in. The cage culture of tilapia was initially tested in Laguna Lake using fish pen structures. Tilapia easily acclimated to the tropical waters of Laguna Lake with high returns on investments so this simple technology was introduced to the lakeshore community of San Pablo City.

Tilapia aquaculture using fish cages was introduced to Sampaloc Lake in 1976. The industry expanded from 6 hectares to 28 hectares in 1989. Total production is now 4,383 metric tons or an average of 60 metric tons/hectare per year. With the success of this aquaculture practice, the technology was also introduced to the other lakes of San Pablo.

Inland fishery in San Pablo City became a major source of income of the fisherfolk. Eventually, the fish cages and fish pens occupied 25.2% of the total lake area, exceeding the limits set by RA 8550 (Fisheries Code 1998) that only 10-12% of the total surface area of the lakes can be occupied by the structures. In the latter period of this aquaculture practice, a decrease in the growth rate of tilapia became noticeable so that fish cage operators started to supplement the natural lake food with commercially produced feed. This feeding practice hastened the deterioration of the lake’s water quality.

Formal studies and ecological assessments of Sampaloc Lake by LLDA, University of the Philippines-Los Baños, and Ateneo de Manila University have determined that the proliferation of fish cages and unregulated feeding practices have led to the deterioration of the lake’s water quality. This condition is worsened by the yearly overturn of the lake where water with inadequate oxygen content from the bottom circulates, causing massive fish kills in the cages. With the increased activity of the aquaculture industry together with the growing population, the community became increasingly conscious of the implications on water quality and the long-term use of the lakes as a resource.

A critical people’s organization for the seven lakes is FARMC, whose role is to help achieve the sustainable use of the lakes. A set of officers is elected by the fisherfolk themselves as the governing council for all seven lakes. Each lake also has a set of officers where the president is a member of the governing council. FARMC emphasizes the empowerment of the major stakeholders in the coastal community, particularly the fisherfolk, and gives them opportunities for meaningful participation in fisheries management. Through this organization, the community actively participates in projects such as the regular clean-up of the lakeshore, reforestation of the lake’s periphery with an indigenous aquatic woody plant, and proper disposal of waste. FARMC organized the Bantay Lawa and have police powers to further protect the lakes. To attain further empowerment, the Bantay Lawa are trained to understand the ecology of the lakes and have merged this with their indigenous knowledge of this resource. The Bantay Lawa also helps in the awareness campaign for the rest of the fisherfolk.

NGOs such as the Alyansa ng mga Samahan sa Timog Katagalugan para sa Kaunlaran, a federation of fisherfolk, is likewise concerned with the sustainability of the lakes. They commissioned scientists to investigate the impact of aquaculture in Sampaloc Lake, and, in line with the experiences of the fisherfolk, formulated actions in coordination with the other stakeholders to minimize the effects of aquaculture. Friends of the Seven Lakes, a local NGO based in San Pablo City, also took initiatives to save the lakes by helping the LLDA and LGU fund the relocation of the informal settlers along the lakeshore area of Sampaloc Lake. The Friends of the Seven Lakes monitored pH and dissolved oxygen, posting the results on a big board in Sampaloc Lake for the lakeshore community to keep informed about the water quality status.

Government agencies responsible for the country’s aquatic resources are the BFAR, LLDA, and the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) through the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development (PCAMRD). These agencies coordinate with the LGU and FARMC to help establish productivity-enhancing economic programs in the coastal fishing community; for instance, the mass culture of Macrobrachium or ulang, a freshwater shrimp, has been introduced as an alternative to the aquaculture of tilapia. They monitor the water quality of the lakes, and develop databases and appropriate technologies. Academic institutions such as the UPLB and the Department of Environmental Science of Ateneo de Manila University institute research initiatives in close coordination with the LGU and other stakeholders.

Thus, with the leadership of the fisherfolk community -- guided by FAMRC and with support from the local government -- fisherfolk organizations, NGOs, and academic groups can bond together for a common cause: to restore the water quality of the lakes and enhance the sustainability of this important resource. The seven lakes carve out the uniqueness of San Pablo City, influencing its traditions and culture. The demand on the lakes as a significant resource for multiple uses has increased, and aquaculture of tilapia, in particular, can hasten the deterioration of the water quality of the lakes and threaten their sustainability if not properly managed. However, the steps undertaken by all the stakeholders in San Pablo City, their love for the seven lakes, and their commitment and cooperation, are positive indicators for the sustainability of the Seven Lakes.