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March 13, 2012

Exploring a Filipino Fish Market

Editor’s note: This is fifth and final part in a series of dispatches from the Philippines.

After meeting with Marybeth in Lanuza, our crew headed back to Butuan City, where we split up – Paul to Manila on his way back to the UK, and Fel, Lito and myself to Cebu. Fel, a pride program manager for Rare, was nice enough to stick around in Cebu with me for a day and take me to the wet and dried fish markets in the old part of the city, where we could see the flip side of overfishing in the Philippines.

Cebu, the oldest city in the country, is the site where Ferdinand Magellan landed in 1521. He converted a few hundred native people to Catholicism before being killed in a battle a few weeks later, but his legacy endures: the Philippines is quite possibly the most Catholic place I’ve ever been, and I’ve been to Rome. Every office building includes images of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and religion is woven into even the fashions of the young Filipinos, like the rhinestone cross earrings I saw on a young woman on our jeepney ride to the market.

The central market in Cebu encompasses several blocks of ramshackle stalls containing everything from bursting funeral flower arrangements to cages full of fighting roosters. Here’s where you can buy one of the Philippines’ famous street food delicacies: balut, or a fertilized duck egg hardboiled and eaten at three weeks’ gestation, feathers and all. (I didn’t have one. I earned my stripes the previous day by tasting several varietals of durian, a fruit so foul-smelling it’s often banned from taxis and public buildings. “Smells like hell and tastes like heaven” is what they say, and while the smell was pretty revolting, the fruit itself wasn’t half-bad. Our van smelled like roadkill for the next two hours, though, so the value of this experience was questionable.)

Most of the activity in the fish market takes place overnight, so the wet market – meaning fresh fish – was only a few stalls by the time we arrived. But the dried market, which contained fish that has been cut longitudinally, gutted, salted and dried, was filled with basket after overflowing basket filled with fish: anchovy, grouper, rabbitfish. Most of the fish is immature because smaller fish are coveted, which is an extra blow to fish populations already suffering from overfishing. Fel bought some dried squid to take home, but most of the shoppers were women who were visiting from Manila. The fish at the market had become so expensive that only tourists could afford it: rabbitfish, the mascot species for Vince’s campaign in Cortes, costs 520 pesos a kilo at the Cebu market, or about $5 per pound.

“In the past, fish is a poor man’s meal. Squid and rabbitfish have become food of the rich,” Fel said as we watched the tourists pull up in taxis to quickly buy fish before their clothes started to smell of the market. “A half kilo of squid is half the budget for a week for a common family.”

This echoed a conversation I’d had with a couple of fisherman’s wives on General Island a few days earlier. They told me how they saved about a quarter of their husbands’ catch to feed the family while the rest was sent to market. Typically they kept the less commercially-valuable fish for themselves, like anchovies. It underscored how borderline the livelihoods of the fishers are – one poor catch and they may be forced to sell it all, leaving little or nothing for the family to eat.

Over the week, I got a lot of great information while talking with the fishermen and their families, as well as the mayors and Rare’s hardworking conservation fellows. Thank you again for the wonderful opportunity, and I’ll look forward to following the campaigns as they proceed over the next year.