Team Out of Town Blog Hub (Outoftownblog.com) – We reached the coastal community of Brgy Diora-Zinungan in Sta. Ana just around the time of dawn as tiny rays of sunlight trail the sky and the fainter stars begin to fade. There was a method to our madness of having an early wakeup call and that is to time our visit when the beltfish, locally known as “espada” or “bulung unas”, swim in schools to the deep waters of the Philippine Sea to hunt for food.
After meeting with a group of fishermen, we were asked to huddle for a brief orientation about what we are about to experience that morning. Since belt-fishing has become the main source of livelihood for the residents here, DOT region 2 has included it in its “Nature and Adventure” tourism circuit by offering visitors an experiential belt-fishing tour.
According to Kuya Wilfredo, the group’s lead tour guide, belt-fishing in Diora-Zinungan started in the early 2000s when one of their fellow fishermen ventured more than 20 nautical miles and returned home with a catch of 80 kilos of beltfish.
Since then, they studied the beltfish’s nature and instincts enough to understand that they like to feed during long periods starting at dusk and ending at dawn. They usually can be found swimming at an average depth of 80 dipa (fathoms), which corresponds to 146 meters according to Kuya Wilfredo.
Using local fishing equipment called the “Kariti” – a manual and cheaper version of the hydraulic pulleys used by the Taiwanese – the fishermen attach three baits to each of the boat’s three kariti and then set out on a 12-nautical mile radius of fishing grounds. “We first created a Kariti made from a bicycle crank. After several trial and error and re-design, we came up with this final Kariti design”, Kuya Wilfredo later told us in Tagalog on the boat as he also ended up as our fisherman guide that morning.
Setting out for the Catch
Divided by two’s, our party of more than twenty people boarded almost a dozen fishing boats with each manned by a duo of seasoned fishermen. As we set out to the ideal fishing grounds of the “espada” fish, about 2-4 nautical kilometers off the coast of Diora-Zinungan, Kuya Wilfredo lectured us about the process of best fishing as well as the personality traits of the “bulung unas”.
“Unlike other fish species, when they bit on bait, they tend to swim around. But with the belt fish, they only pull the cable with the bait downward. This behavior makes it possible for us to use three baits on one kariti because all three baits won’t get entangled in instances when we simultaneously capture three”, Kuya Wilfredo explained to us in Tagalog.
Our boats have three kariti installed on it and on any given morning, they could easily catch three at a time or even at the same time. Luck however wasn’t on our boat’s side that morning. Since timing is the key, the perfect time to set out to the sea is between 4-6 am. Our group arrived past six am and our boat must escort another boat that experienced minor engine problems. In the end, we started our fishing exploit past 7 am.
When we arrived on the area of the fishing ground, however, we started hearing screams of cheers from the other boats as they started catching several beltfishes. One boat even caught a total of 12 beltfishes. What we lacked in catch that day, me and fellow travel writer Ferdz, made it up with informative information about the history of beltfishing in Brgy Diora-Zinungan from Kuya Wilfredo.
A Community-run Experiential Nature Tour
Although beltfishing has helped the community of Diora-Zinungan in the last couple of decades, doubts about its sustainability lingers in the minds of the fishermen. “Before, during the early 2000s, any fishermen can easily catch 60-80 kilos”, Kuya Wilfredo told us in Tagalog. “You’ll be the one who will quit and call it a day. Nowadays, you’d be lucky to end up with 30 kilos a day”, he adds.
With the reality of a diminishing supply of fresh catch surrounding every coastal community relying on fishing, having another source of income provides a good alternative for local fishermen. In this case, a community-run tourism endeavor.
By offering an experiential belt-fishing tour to visitors, the fishermen are not pressured anymore to come home with 30 kilos and upwards amount of catch. All they need to do is escort the tourists a few nautical miles to catch a few number of beltfishes and voila, they can easily match or even surpass their regular fishing earnings for the day.
The other advantage of this tourism program is it’ll give the beltfish population time to grow as daily fishing volume will be lessened by a significant number. Today, the Department of Tourism and the DOT Region II plans to market this experiential tour which will allow tourists to experience beltfishing and enjoy some of their catch on a beachfront lunch afterwards.
Depending on the catch of the day, a third can be allocated to be cooked by the community mothers who are part of DOT’s “Kulinarya” program and the other two-thirds to be bought from the fishermen and given to the community respectively.
Sounds like a win, win, win scenario for all. First, the beltfishes can have the chance to repopulate, second, the tourists will enjoy a unique experience, and lastly, the fishermen will earn from the tour-guiding job while the community benefits from other tourism-related services.
Currently, this program is still in its infancy stages and tourists willing to experience belt fishing should make arrangements with the Department of Tourism Region II so they can hook them up with proper tour operators who will coordinate with the community.
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