Sinarapan

Mistichthys luzonensisSinarapan is scientifically known as Mistichthys luzonensis. There is no translation of this name in Filipino, though the word means “tasty” or “delicious.” This species is found only in Lakes Bato and Lake Buhi and other bodies of water in Camarines Sur province, part of the Philippines’ Bicol Region. It is believed to be the world’s smallest commercially harvested fish (though not the smallest fish known). The fish has an average length of 12.5 millimeters. Males are smaller than females. Sinarapan were first studied in 1859, but were mistakenly thought to be immature specimens of Gobius dispar. They received no further outside attention until United States Army scientists described them as a new species in 1902.

Alive, sinarapan are transparent with large black eyes. Preserved specimens are opaque with a few dark spots over their sides, backs and heads. This tiny goby is reported to occur in vast numbers in Lake Buhi, from near the shoreline out to where the water is at least 10 to 20 meters deep, and breeds throughout the year. According to the inhabitants of Buhi, the eggs float on the surface of the lake covering large areas, especially during sunny days in March and April. Specimens are collected in the latter part of September and in January during the breeding season. When hatched, the young swim first at the surface but after a short time go to the bottom to live.

Sinarapan probably rise to the surface with the diurnal movement of the plankton on which they feed. The unique method used to capture them capitalizes on this knowledge. Catching the sinarapan is an art. Anglers and fishermen first cut and trim a bamboo stalk at least 10 meters long, with the end sharpened and branches removed except three or four of the uppermost twigs. A palm leaf is wrapped around the topmost meter or two. The trap (abung) is then set firmly into the lake bottom with a spur of the palm leaf protruding above the surface. This leaf serves as both a part of the trap and as a way to relocate it. During the day the sinarapan come to rest upon the palm leaf. Mid-afternoon, fishermen go out to the traps to capture the fish using a triangular net, or sarap. The sarap is mounted on a Y-frame of bamboo and with it the abung is swept from the bottom of the palm leaf to the top. Usually from a half-liter to a liter of sinarapan are caught in each trap. The sinarapan cannot be caught along the shore, though they can be readily seen there, because they are protected by dense masses of aquatic plants.

From time immemorial sinarapan have been caught in large quantities by the people living near the lake and are regarded as a staple food and delicacy. Locals fry the sinarapan in oil or boil them with vegetables. When more are caught than the local market demands, the surplus is salted or dried in cakes and exported to neighboring towns in Camarines Sur and Albay Provinces. To showcase this local fish, the Sinarapan Festival is celebrated every July 14-15 in the town of San Buenaventura.

Today, sinarapan are at risk because Lake Buhi is in a stage of eutrophication, with an increase in nitrogen or phosphorus compounds resulting in excessive plant growth and decay, in turn leading to lack of oxygen and severe reduction in water quality. Further more, the privilege of harvesting this traditional fish is handed out by the municipality to the highest bidders, who receive exclusive fishing rights in their particular leased area of the lake, and the fish are subsequently overfished by these commercial few fishers.

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