(A farmer in the Science City of Muñoz shows some of the “kiwit” he caught from the rice farms. Photo by Elmo Roque)
SCIENCE CITY OF MUÑOZ– Don’t look now. The swamp eels that were earlier considered by the rice farmers here and in some parts of the country as banes in farming are now welcome “invaders” and sought by them for beneficial reason.
The eel, identified by a scientist from the Freshwater Aquaculture Center (FAC) of the Central Luzon State University (CLSU), is officially known as Asian swamp eel (Monopterus albus). It is commonly called in Tagalog as igat, palos or kiwit and grows up to 40 centimeters as an adult.
It burrows as deep as 1.5 meters during the dry season to survive dry conditions. A nocturnal fish, it feeds on fish, crustaceans and other invertebrates and normally found in rivers, lakes, ponds, marshes, swamps and drains but has invaded rice lands.
Published studies indicated that its blood is toxic to human and other animals. But properly cooking it destroys its toxic protein.
A science research analyst from the Philippine Rice Institute (PhilRice) said in 2012 that reports about the presence of the eels in farms came out in that year’s main cropping season when his group visited Barangay Maragol here.
“Farmers there reported several hundred or even thousands of eels on their farms,” the analyst said.
Rice farmers in some parts of Nueva Ecija and two other provinces have reported that swamp eels have appeared also on their farms and damaged their irrigation dikes. PhilRice officials In Isabela and Negros Occidental also reported the presence of the eels on the farms in their areas.
A farmer in Maragol, said that as eels burrowed deep into the soil, they destroy the farm levees. As a result, the retention of irrigation water on the farm has become very poor due to seepage, he added.
The farmer said it was possible that the nutrients from the fertilizers applied on his crop were washed out due to the seepage.
The other farmers in the same barangay said it was difficult for them to determine where the seepage was coming from because they could not see the holes. They added that because of this problem, their water management on the paddy field was compromised due to the holes in the dikes.
“They are like small snakes seen in the paddy field,” the farmers described the eels. “Their color is light orange like some poisonous snake,” they added.
But somehow, the farmers’ woes about the swamp eel has been “solved” not by chemicals but by capturing them by some other farmers or by the farm owners themselves who own a gadget locally called panguryente. It’s made up of two long metallic rods electrified by 12 volts placed in a box and carried at the back of the eel catchers.
John Cabating, 42, a farmer from a village here, said the swamp eels are now bought by traders who sell them to buyers in Metro Manila. He was told, he said, that the buyers are mostly Chinese who like this type of eel that belongs to the fish family.
When supply is abundant, traders buy the eels from the catchers at P120 to P150 a kilogram, he said. It goes up to P280 per kilogram when the farm land is beginning to dry or the palay crop has already rice panicles, he added.
“The farm owners allow us to seek the eels in the holes in their dike. Sometimes the eels also move around the farm land when there is enough water and we catch them with the use of our gadget,” Cabating said.
About five to six pieces of the eels make a kilogram. A farmer usually gets four to five kilos for about five hours of catching them at night.
Some farmers’ families also like to eat the swamp eel. They relish it as food particularly if it is cooked with kakanggata or the cream from the first squeeze of the grated coconut flesh.