February 19, 2018, 7:38 am
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Laguna de Bae and its knifefish

LAGUNA, which had the town of Bae for its capital, existed long before the coming of the Spaniards. The Chinese must have come to the lake-shore towns to trade as early as the 9th century. The earliest account of Bae appeared in the conquest of island of Luzon published in April 20, 1572. 

Laguna de Bae is the largest fresh water lake of all of South East Asia, 12 leagues wide (66 kilometers) and very deep. The villages around the lake had about 25,000 inhabitants when Spanish Captain Juan de Salcedo arrived in the area.

Bae is one of the oldest towns in Laguna province. The Spaniards pronounced the name of the town “Bah-ee” while the natives called it “Bah-eh. The lake was called Laguna de Bae, lake of [the capital town of] Bae. I suspect it was the Americans who could not figure out how to pronounce Bah-eh, who called the lake Laguna Bay.

Centuries past, fishing from this lake was productive, for subsistence fisherfolks, but not anymore due to over-fishing, lake pollution along its shores, and invasive species which the natives call janitor fish (because they would eat any and all varieties of native fish in this lake). 

The knifefish, known scientifically as Chitala ornate, is the invasive species with its ability to prey on native and economically important marine edibles. The proliferation of the knifefish has led to reduced catches, particularly of tilapia, both in open waters and aquaculture cages.

The University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) Limnological Station had released a technical bulletin titled “Biology of Knifefish (Chitala ornata) in Laguna de Bay” to help fisherfolk and the general public understand the biology, behavior, and movement of this invasive species.

The bulletin is an output of the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD)-funded Research and Development (R&D) Program, “Towards the Control and Management of the Invasive Knifefish in Laguna de Bay”.

Without any known predator or competitor in Laguna de Bay, knifefish population grew fast, reaching up to 40% of the fish catch at its peak. A research team led by Dr. Ma. Vivian Camacho of UPLB’s Institute of Biological Sciences, studied the breeding and reproductive behavior of knifefish in relation to their period of abundance in the lake. The two-year study showed that knifefish exhibit seasonal spawning, with March-May as peak period. The parent fish creates a nest or pit around the bamboo pole where the eggs are attached and one or both parents guard the nest until the eggs are hatched. The parental care ensures that most of the eggs survive which contributes to their reproductive success.

Physical removal such as harvesting, and over-fishing are effective in controlling the knifefish population. This observation is supported by estimates of population parameters. However, control by harvesting can be most successful prior to spawning and during schooling of juveniles.

The team also monitored the movement of knifefish to find the locations where the fish tends to aggregate. The movement study was undertaken using mark-recapture technique where fish are tagged prior to release. Results show that large knifefish (50-75 centimeters) can travel 1.1 kilometer in less than 24 hours while smaller ones (19-29 cm) usually travel at shorter distances.

Adult knifefish tend to stay near fishpens while smaller juveniles usually stay near land areas with submerged vegetation (Vallisneria sp). Their stomach content show that small-sized fish feed primarily on shrimp such as ‘yapyap’ and ‘hipon’ while large-sized fish feed more on fishes. Based on their feeding behavior, baited fishing methods such as ‘kitang’ (longline) is effective for catching. The recommended schedule for catching is from 4 to 7 AM or 7 to 10 PM, the period which coincides with their feeding.

BFAR ‘s ongoing project is the regular stocking of tilapia fingerlings into the Laguna de Bae in order to increase the population to benefit subsistence fisherfolk. With the overwhelming presence of adult knifefish, no matter how often BFAR stocks the lake with native and economically important species like tilapia, the knifefish are there to swallow the fingerlings as soon as they are put in the lake. What is needed is to create secure nurseries surrounded by fine netting that will keep the fingerlings within and out of reach of the preying fish.

Three posters, namely, on the reproductive biology, population dynamics, and feeding ecology of knifefish in Laguna de Bay were also produced by the program.

 Copies of the bulletin were turned over by Dr. Camacho to PCAARRD Executive Director Dr. Reynaldo V. Ebora and the members of the Interagency Technical Working Group (TWG) on the Containment of Knifefish in Laguna de Bae during the TWG meeting recently held at PCAARRD.

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Dahliaspillera@yahoo.com
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