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Asal: an indigenous fishing practice in Benguet

By: Joahna G. Goyagoy

Endowed with natural resources, the municipality of Kapangan in Benguet is home to Amburayan River, a water resource thriving with rice fish resources. In fact, fisherfolk in this community uses indigenous fishing gears and practices that gives a bountiful catch or an almost daily basis. One, among many other, is the use of asal.

Endowed with natural resources, the municipality of Kapangan in Benguet is home to Amburayan River, a water resource thriving with rice and fish resources. In fact, fisherfolk in this community use indigenous fishing gears and practices that give bountiful catch on an almost daily basis. One, among many others, is the use of asal.

Asal, an open nipa hut-like fishing gear, is one of the indigenous fishing gears utilized in the Cordilleras. Its origin, according to fisherfolk, was since time immemorial passed to them by their ancestors. It started as an experiment when farmers thought of replicating the way they filter dirt and other undesirable elements from penetrating into their rice fields. This practice was called asal or 'to filter'. Hence, they replicated the same technique in their fishing activity and retained the name 'asal'.

This fishing gear was particularly designed to take advantage of the rain during the length of the wet season -the asal.

Unknown to many, this asal is being utilized in different provinces in Cordillera such as Abra, Benguet, Apayao, and Ifugao. In Abra, Apayao, and Ifugao, they call it 'asar' but in Benguet, they refer to it as 'asal', a little difference influenced by linguistic varieties across the region.

In Abra, the Tineg River, for example, five single, separate asar are simultaneously installed at the heart of the river facing against the water current. These fish traps are built three meters apart from each having about two meters wide and 15 meters long.

In sitio Malagyao in Cuba, Kapangan where the Amburayan River flows through, a single asal is installed and is divided into three parts, each belonging to different fisherfolk.

This fishing gear is usually made up of ipil, Japanese bamboo, runu, and cogon grass which are intricately designed particularly to be used in rivers.

The bamboos are used as the asal's floorings, the ipil tree and large bamboos for its posts and foundation, the runu is used in holding the posts together, and the cogon grass as its roofing.

The asal in Kapangan is 10 feet tall and 165 feet long, 10 feet of which is dug into the water horizontally to easily drive fish into the asal. The posts, which are the foundation of the asal, are dug into the water by 2-3 feet covered with large stones.

While it takes several weeks of laborious undertaking to finish this structure during summer, the fisherfolk still venture in doing so for it will mean a voluminous catch of fish for them during the length of the rainy season. During this season, the water current gets strong and becomes murky; hence, the fish lose control of their movement and are thereby easily trapped into the asal. What remains to be done by the fisherfolk is merely to handpick them.

The asal catches several kinds of fish species and in big volumes at that. But what is more interesting about this kind of fish trap is not only its traditional and intricate architecture but more importantly, its convenience that allows fisherfolk to just wait for fish to arrive and be handpicked--literally.

At the edge of the asal, opposite the portion which is dug in the waters, is a dry part where fisherfolk luxuriously sit or lie down as the fish are naturally driven into the asal. As the fish reach the middle part of the floorings, they struggle to escape but are prevented by the strong wave of the water against the asal's floorings. The flooring is likewise designed to keep the fish trapped since the spaces between each bamboo are only an inch apart or the size of an average man's finger, hence, only the small fish can freely escape but the others don't.

The commonly fish trapped into the asal are kampa or loach goby, kiwet (Eel ssp.), igat (eel), tilapia, palileng/ tibek (goby species), udang (freshwater prawn), and tamtampi.

Since the asal is divided into three parts, whatever is trapped into each belongs to the owner of the respective row. Most of the time, the fisherfolk are able to harvest 10-20 kilograms of different species. When they are luckier, they can catch more up to 30 kilograms daily. Each kilogram is pegged at 250 pesos (mixed) and 300 pesos if the buyer opts to buy a kilo of a single species. Each row has its own accessory gears such as fish container, where the fish caught are stored; and salgat, a comb-like gear used to catch kiwet and eel.

Today, fishing has evolved from a mere source of food for family consumption to an important livelihood in the community as indigenous fish species is constantly favoured for its unique taste and rarity.