Saturday, May 28, 2005

Sablayan Tour, Tuna!

Yes this was Sunday but we were not yet really homeward bound. This day was scheduled for us to roam the town of Sablayan and its environs for we leave this place early tomorrow morning.

On arrival of our boat at the narrow docks near the Sablayan market, Manang Bidang and another daughter (sister of Mameng, mother of Arvee) was on port with the spanking clean new REVO! There was a brief discussion on which places we wanted to see versus how much time we had left since it was already mid-morning! I did not take part in that discussion obviously because I did not know much about this place and it seemed to me that anywhere we went was a totally welcome experience to me! And off we went!

First stop was such a welcome side-trip I actually caused a delay in our itinerary. It was a TUNA STATION! A tuna what? Well, it is just the backyard of one businessman (family friend of Manang Bidang’s) whose business actually is to collect, haul and deliver big tuna fish to Manila, Calapan, Batangas and elsewhere. I never knew until this day that there was such lucrative business like this.

The process: he collects (buys actually) tuna caught by local fishermen then haul them in bulk via his own fleet of “refrigerated” trucks to the cities where buyers await for them at a much higher price. Convenient for local fishermen as they don’t need to do the hauling of their catch to the cities and lucrative for him since he buys them fish at a lower price and sell them at the cities at a higher pre-agreed rate. But not everything is tuna speak! There are a bounty of other fishes almost always big than I could have imagined plus other seafood like octopus, squid, lobsters, prawns and many many more. The highlights of course (since they were as big as me) were the tuna.

Why were we there anyway? Well, as Manang Bidang explained, we were there to get fish and whatever else we might have found interesting for lunch. So get fish we did! Sheila chose everything that looked interesting for lunch – a small (probably a baby) tuna that was just about 2 feet long – for grilling; two pieces of big fat red lapulapu about a foot long each – which they said was good for the sweet and sour thingy (escabeche?); four pieces of some other kind of fish (talakitok?) – which they said were good for the tinola (stew?); and a conglomeration of prawns (ok shrimps, lest Mameng scold me again) about as big as what we had for dinner last night – which they said was good fried in butter or stewed! Oh my badness! My jaw dropped at the cost of all those! We paid just about P600 for everything when I knew that if we bought them anywhere in Manila it would have cost from P2,000 or P3,000 or even more! Now I dearly wished Sablayan was just in my backyard!

Oh! After we paid for all them seafood that we took, we were not done yet. I got busy watching the owner/proprietor of this tuna drop-off business do his daily activities with the fishermen. The place, I noticed, is actually along the shores of the narrow waterway the led into the town’s market. So I mused that we actually passed by this area when our boat was approaching to anchor. Indeed it was! I walked down to where the fishermen’s boats were “parked” and saw that it was indeed the very waterway going out to Pandan Island. I could see that beloved island from where I was standing. Oh memories of yesterday - literally hehehe!

Taking extra care not to sound too inquisitive and making sure I was not getting in their way, with my videocam eternally running, I watched the fishermen haul their tuna catch from their little boats. How? They load the fish (some even heavier and bigger than themselves) one-by-one on their shoulders and they walk (almost running) the beach into the drop-off area. Then, them tuna are weighed. How? A rope is tied to the tail of the shining silver-and-black monster of a fish then hung on the hook of a weighing scale that then turns its dials (like a wall clock does) to show how many kilos the fish is! Of course I took particular interest in one fish so I had my picture taken while it hung on the scale. It weighed in at 85.6 kilograms (I am just 75 kgs) and from lips to end of tail it was a foot taller/longer than me and I am just exactly 6 feet! And it was carried from the boat to the weighing scale by a lean and youngish man whose head was just about as tall as my shoulders! I thought that was the biggest, but it was not! Wow!

The fisherfolk told me they could only bring in as many as 6 to 8 of them big fish for the boats would already sink if they took in more than that! Oh so many stories I learned here and I was awfully thankful my DCR-PC115 did not run out of tape! They catch tuna by the good old hook-and-sinker style. Bait? Well, about as big as those that we bought for lunch! So these guys actually do a succession of fishing techniques to catch tuna. First, they use smaller hooks to catch smaller fish, then use the smaller fish as bait for the big tuna. When a tuna bites in, it is usually very strong that the fishermen cannot possibly just haul them from the water to the boat! So they let the tuna keep running around the ocean as it mightily tries to dislodge the hook that it has just bitten into – until it tires and gives up. To help each tuna reach its most tiring (and of course fatal) state, the fishermen would drop some heavy things to the water that are tied to the boat. This makes the drag stronger (making the banca heavier for the tuna) thus, it will tire easily and surrender. Then the fishermen gather all strength and pick the tuna from the water to the boat. Only there can they remove the hook that will be fitted with another bait and thrown into the water for another tuna to bite!

Just how long does this tuna gathering maneuvers actually take? How long does it take the boat crew of usually 3 or 4 fishermen to haul in a catch of 6 fishes? Usually two days one night and sometimes even three days two nights! Golly I suddenly remembered the tour itineraries of my travel agency! The codes 3D2N are familiar, right?! What a profession this tuna catching business is! We could all already be touring Bangkok and Ayuthaya even add in Pattaya while them fisherfolk are at the same time out in the sea trying to earn a living! Sounds unfair, I think! But what can we do?!

Many times, while following the fishermen as they run to haul the big fishes to the drop-off point, I would switch to interacting with the proprietor and crews of the drop-off business. I might as well call them “tuna-brokers” for easy reference! They told me that many times these fisherfolk would actually come with just one or two big fishes. They said that especially these days theres fewer catch. And them tuna-brokers can tell how long ago a tuna has been caught from the sea (translate that to how long ago a tuna has been dead). So, if at the end of day-one the fishermen still just have one tuna on board, they better head back to shore for their tuna to be still sellable! Then I asked why some of the fishermen told me they sometimes spend three days and two nights out at sea to catch tuna. The answer was quick and simple: “they have not caught any tuna on the first overnight”

Next I learned that especially the Manila buyers are very strict about the freshness of each tuna and that they have technical knowledge to tell if a tuna has been dead for three days or two! So them tuna-brokers maintain a “transit casket” (whatever they call that) for the tuna to remain fresh. No tuna can be more than 3 days dead for it to be bought by a Manila buyer at a desired price. Oh these “transit caskets” are nothing but outsized rectangular concrete structures about 15 meters long and 6 meters wide that is filled to the brim with little blocks and cubes and crushed ice. Quite a cold dip really for them tuna to remain fresh! And even with that, a tuna must leave the “transit casket” if it’s already 2 days dead! Golly how complicated this tuna thing is!

Sensing that I might have spent the whole day in this place without “manual intervention” my companions started tugging at me and telling me that we still had a lot of places to visit and we still had to cook lunch! So I wrapped all inquisitiveness that I ever had and went with them to wherever our next stop was to be!

Ok, one last tuna thingy before I finally leave the topic... Almost all that I’ve seen here were yellow-fin tuna!

Onwards, we visited a farm along the highway where we earlier planned to spend lunch at. This was actually the house and farm of one of Sheila's cousins. But the rule here was, we were to cook everything that would become our lunch fare. What a challenge!

to be continued

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