Written by Oliver Samson / Correspondent
BARCELONA, Sorsogon—For hundreds of fishermen whose families live at the mercy of the sea, the crablet, as tiny as a grain of milled rice, brings food to their tables when days of murky seawater and gray heavens hold them from drifting at sea for fish.
For almost a month, starting a week before Christmas to the New Year, and up to the third week of January, this town bitterly lives through this weather condition. Coconut farmers could produce copra or unhusk the fruits and sell them as skinned coconuts under this harsh weather.
But the poor fishermen, whose families are completely dependent on the sea, pray that the sun would shine soon, that rain would stop so that the seawater would become clear again. No fish, no income. No income, no food to eat.
The children and their parents would starve if they have nowhere to go. Their coconut farmer relatives in the upland produce copra only every 45 or 30 days, and copra is being bought at a low price. Their rice-farmer friends would harvest the grains after three months.
But thanks to the tiny crablets, inhabiting under mangroves along the shoreline, the poor fishermen have food on their tables during the difficult weeks of an unforgiving, unproductive sea.
Albert Habulan, a father to three, has lifted his boat to the shore long since the sea behaved this way in early December. Nobody knew when the sea would become gracious again. His agahid is now the fishing tool fit for the ocean that manifests spite.
Agahid is a fishing tool made of tiny-eyed fishing net attached around a medium-sized rattan rim fixed at the center with a long rattan pole that provides the fisherman with a grip. The agahid is pushed in a forward direction against the seabed to hunt the tiny crablets.
Habulan, who sails for high-value fish on fine weather days, can earn from P800 to P2,000 in a day of crablet hunting. He is considered one of the best baby-crab hunters along coastal communities, sweeping the seabed day and night.
In January when the crablets sell to crab dealers in the barrio for P3.50 a piece, 500 pieces of crablet would get fetch P1,750.
Pawik, the baby crab in its later incubation state, sells to the crab dealer for a lower price. After two days, pawik matures into tiny crablets.
Coconut farmers who suffer from the low price of their copra can also be seen in a line with agahid resting on their shoulders as they walk from the farm down to the sea.
In one occasion, an entire family can be seen sweeping the ocean together for the tiny marine creatures.
Crablet hunting is done day and night, under different weather conditions. Most of the time, the crablet hunter’s back is bent as he pushes the fishing tool, and as he isolates the tiny crablet from seagrass, small rocks, snails, soil, mud, twigs and other particles caught by the implement.
Along the coastline of Barangay Tagdon alone, no less than 100 baby-crab hunters, who include men, women, and young children, can be spotted during low tide, especially when crablets are selling at a high price.
AT P3.50 apiece, the crablet enjoys its highest market value, said Ernesto Estrabella, a crab dealer in Barangay Tagdon. During the wet season, starting in September, its value climbs to its highest. The value plunges to its lowest at 75 centavos in summer, usually beginning in March.
Estrabella delivers about of 15,000 crablets to another crab dealer in nearby Gubat town in a day. He estimated Barcelona alone dispatches about 50,000 pieces of crablets to crab growers in one day.
The fishermen in the towns of Gubat, Bulusan and Magallanes are also hunting for the tiny crablets to meet the demand of crab growers in Pampanga and Roxas City, Estrabella said.
The cartons, which look like pizza boxes piled one on top of the other, contain thousands of crablets from Sorsogon shorelines. They are also met and paid by Pampanga buyers at Cubao bus terminals. Some crablet dealers in the province dispatch their volume directly to crab growers in Pampanga.
The average mortality rate is 200 crablets for every 1,000, Estrabella said. So far, crablet dealing has been a good enterprise.
The only thing one needs is to learn the ins and outs of the business. The crab dealer may earn from 25 centavoss to P1 per crablet.
NOT only adult fishermen shove the seaboard day and night to find a living. Kids as young as five years old also stalk the tiny crablets. Fortunately, crablets are found only in knee-deep shorelines.
The crablet hunters start the hunt when the tide is low. Getting drowned is too remote for a child.
A capped C2 plastic bottle filled with seawater and a few leaves of mangroves hang on their waist as they propel the agahid. The crablets are put in the plastic bottle. They bring the bottle to the crab dealer. The crab dealer empties it to a basin and counts the harvest before paying.
Aldrin, an elementary pupil, sweeps the seabed with his agahid to help his parents eke out a living and to buy him new clothes. His father is proud to share that his son already knows how to earn at an early age, saying he fares no better than his kid in spotting baby crabs.
Some kids hunt crablets so they can pay for network games at Internet cafés in town. Others spend their earnings on toys and junk foods. Some kids keep their earning with their mothers for school allowance.
The issue of child labor surfaces from time to time. But who is culpable if the child is not coerced, and whose willingness to work is voluntary?
Some kids find it as an exciting activity, especially the boys who are naturally inclined to hunting adventures. They earn while playing. Children can earn as much as P500 a day.
ELEMENTARY-school principal Liza Dy Salonga said some pupils miss their class for crablet hunting. While they help their family find a living, the children’s formal education is put at stake.
Worse, hunting for crablets and earning a living may lead to dropping out, she said. The role of parents or guardians is called for regarding this.
Salonga said parents should discourage their kids to go to sea on school days. The children may miss important lessons and even tests. They may permit their children to look for crablets on weekends instead.
Barangay officials complained about young mangroves dying to the adverse result of crablet hunting. The solid rattan rim of agahid rams young mangroves when pushed against the seabed, causing mortality in the long run.
Several efforts to buffer the shoreline with mangroves failed due to indiscriminate crablet hunting. This can be addressed if fishermen learn to care about coastal reforestation.
Seagrass Mangrove and Coral Chairman Joselito Domdom said the mangrove is the mother of marine animals. Under the strong roots of adult mangroves, different sea creatures find a protective shelter, so do baby crablets until they mature and ready to roam the open sea.
They also have long since said that harvesting crablets is prohibited. But barangay officials do not have the heart to apprehend the poor fishermen, whose family will miss meals if they do not find something to exchange for a few kilos of rice.
For years, they show tolerance to crablet hunting because most of the hunters are poor. A fisherman who depends on the sea may steal to save his family from starving if barangay officials will tighten with the law.
No one was ever apprehended since the time crablet mentality crept into the psyche of indigent fishermen. Since childhood, many of them have looked at the crablets as the bounty of the sea that have saved them and their families from certain starvation.