By Cielito M. Reganit
MANILA, (PNA) — What was once been considered a bane to farmers in Northern Luzon has become a billion-peso export fish commodity, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) said Thursday.
BFAR Director Asis Perez reported that as of September, exports of rice eel had breach the P1-billion mark in the past three months.
Perez said the Philippines had exported 4,420 tons of rice eel to Japan, China, South Korea and the United States from July to September.
At P250 per kilogram, rice eel had brought in an estimated P1.1 billion in export value for the third quarter of this year alone.
Prior to its development as an export commodity, the rice eel (Monopterus albus) has been a dilemma of rice farmers and fishpond operators in Region 2, particularly in the provinces of Cagayan, Nueva Vizcaya and Quirino since 2011.
Locally known as “kiwet,” farmers initially thought the rice eels, which can grow from 25 centimeters to 40cm into adulthood, were beneficial as they can be caught and sold in the local market from P40 to P80 per kilo.
However, the unabated invasion of these non-indigenous fish specie in some provinces of the region became also the bane of farmers as rice fields were being reportedly destroyed due to the rice eel.
They reported that the burrowing habits of the rice eel loosened the soil composition and caused water irrigation to leak off which dried their rice paddies.
Furthermore, BFAR said the rice eel is also a voracious predator which feeds on frogs, snail eggs including other fishes and shrimps, thereby posing a serious threat to the country’s native fish species.
Its origin remains unclear up to now, but the common view is that the “kiwet” might have been introduced here from abroad for home aquariums or commercial breeding.
To address this problem, Perez said the agency initiated the development and processing of the rice eel into a value added product.
He said BFAR has also developed an efficient and environment-friendly fishing gear which enabled farmers to increase the catch per unit effort by taking advantage of the nocturnal hunting behavior of the animal.
Previous to this, farmers in Cagayan had resorted to using electro-fishing gadgets to curb the growing number of rice eels in their fields.
Electro-fishing is illegal under the Fisheries Act because of its negative environmental impact.
“These initial efforts, combined with the entrepreneurial skill of several international fish trading companies have turned this ‘pest’ into valuable fish,” Perez said.
These early, efforts had brought in about P517 million in export value from January to June this year.
Now, the growing value of the kiwet as an export commodity is beginning to attract foreign investors.
Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala said that a Japanese businessman, which he declined to name pending formal talks, had expressed interest in putting up a rice eel producing facility in the country.
Alcala said he was approached by the Japanese businessman at the sidelines of the three-day Agrilink international trade show exhibition which opened Thursday at the World Trade Center in Pasay City.
“For the meantime, the DA and BFAR have began initiating follow-up programs to fully utilize the potentials of kiwet,” he said.