Dumangas’ Aquaman confronts El Niño, pivots diversified farming

Posted by: RAFIS DA6 | Posted at: July 4, 2024

Enrique Guelos Jr., fondly known as Sir Rick, once thrived in the hustle and bustle of Manila’s vibrant nightlife and towering skyscrapers that paint his daily scenery. At the high point of his career, Rick relished the fast-paced life of the city until the pandemic disrupted the world in 2020. Amid the lockdowns and the shifting tides of daily life, his brother Larry’s suggestion to return to Dumangas, Iloilo, and manage a family fish ponds seemed almost difficult to accept. Initially reluctant due to his disdain for laboring under the sun and the smelly, muddy conditions of fish farming, Rick’s circumstances pushed him to reconsider. By January 2021, he had decided to take the plunge to the 62.7 hectares of fishpond.

Rick’s return home was met with an overwhelming sight: dilapidated structures, inadequate irrigation systems, and barren ponds. It was a far cry from the organized operations he had envisioned. Unfazed, he built a small house in the middle of the fish pond area, implying his commitment to hands-on management and personal involvement in the fish farm’s revival.

Starting with 45,000 fingerlings, Rick’s dedication and innovative methods soon saw his stock double to 90,000; and achieving a high quality of two milkfish per kilogram. Six months into his new venture, his first harvest was a evidence to his hard work, contributing significantly to Dumangas’ milkfish industry. His father’s wisdom and the technical support from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) technicians were instrumental in these early successes.

Guelos Fish Venture quickly became synonymous with high-quality milkfish production. Ric’s ability to integrate efficient systems that enabled multiple harvests each year set a new standard in the industry. However, the real test of his resilience came with the onset of the El Nin o phenomenon in 2023 and 2024, a climatic event whose severity he had not anticipated.

“My cognitive ability was pushed to think of alternatives; asking myself what more I can do to secure the productivity of my area. El Nin o is not an ordinary situation; it is a phenomenon that we need to be ready for in the future,” Rick explains. The extreme heat and drought brought by El Nin o presented unprecedented challenges. Rick had to manage not only the environmental impacts on his fish ponds but also sail across market pressures. Competing with cheaper, lower-quality milkfish from Luzon became a significant issue, affecting his ability to sell his premium product at sustainable prices. The prolonged growth periods due to altered salinity levels necessitated increased feed, hiking his expenses by about 50%. Despite these challenges, Rick remained steadfast in his commitment to quality, focusing on maintaining consistent production even if it meant reduced profits.

To mitigate the impacts of El Nin o, Rick implemented several best practices. Recognizing that water management was critical, he upgraded his infrastructure by installing concrete water gates and modifying their sizes for better control. This allowed for precise management of water levels and salinity, crucial during periods of intense heat. Financial stability was another key focus. Understanding the delays in harvest due to El Nino, Rick proactively communicated with his feed suppliers about revised payment schedules, ensuring transparency and maintaining his credibility. Another significant improvement was the construction of a concrete storage and sorting area. The old structure, built with light materials, was susceptible to temperature changes and rain. The new facility protects feeds, stocks, and workers, enhancing overall efficiency and resilience. Rick also prioritized the well-being of his workers. Aware of the health risks posed by extreme heat, he ensured that his employees had access to adequate nutrition, vitamins, and health insurance. He maintained close ties with the municipal hospital for any urgent medical needs, demonstrating his belief that the business’s strength lay in the health of his team.

Rick’s story is a proof of human connection and perseverance. His workers, 14 regular employees who have become like family, are central to his operation. Rick’s emotional attachment to his team is evident; he is driven by a desire to improve their living conditions and ensure their well-being. This bond is reflected in his daily interactions, from morning consultations over coffee to collective problem-solving sessions. “Kung bangus lang ayhan, kayanon ayhan?” (If it’s just milkfish, can we survive?) is a question Rick often reflects upon, especially during production downtimes. His resilience is fueled by his unwavering commitment to his workers and their families, embodying the spirit of “hanggat kaya, kakayanin ko sila” (as long as I can, I will carry them).

In the midst of El Nin o, Rick gathered his workers and emphasized a crucial shift in focus. “During this phenomenon, the reality is not to make huge profits anymore, but to enhance our resiliency over these challenges so I can keep you all, so we can keep going,” he told them. He encouraged each team member to perform their roles efficiently and effectively, underscoring the importance of maintaining the systems they had developed together. Farm diversification was a strategic pivot.The challenges posed by El Nin o highlighted the vulnerability of relying solely on milkfish production. Having five more hectares of land, he saw an opportunity. Nine months ago, Rick began diversifying his farm. What started with 50 native chickens for personal consumption soon expanded into a business venture with over 300 chickens, 50 ducks, and 18 goats. This diversification provided an additional revenue stream and a buffer against climatic and market risks.

Rick also plans to introduce prawns and sea bass, both resilient to climate variations and requiring minimal feeding, further enhancing the farm’s sustainability. This strategic diversification highlights his adaptive thinking and foresight. Rick believes that for the government to effectively support aquaculture producers, a comprehensive understanding of provincial consumption needs is crucial. He advocates for a regulated market that balances local production and imports to prevent oversupply and ensure fair pricing for quality products.

According to BFAR, the total fisheries production in Western Visayas stands at 325,011 metric tons, with 48% from aquaculture, 30% from municipal fisheries, and 22% from commercial fisheries. Rick argues that there must be a balance between local consumption and production to avoid oversupply and ensure fair competition. The lessons learned from El Nin o have been invaluable.

Rick’s experience underscores the importance of being hands-on, passionate, and knowledgeable, particularly in the face of climate change. His journey from a carefree city dweller to a dedicated fish pond operator exemplifies resilience and adaptability. He attributes his success to all the people who became part of the Guelos fish farm, his workers who work with him; his father whom he considered his mentor in all aspects; and his wife Tynes for inspiring him every day to hurdle the challenges.

Rick’s story is a demonstration of the power of passion, perseverance, and the importance of adapting to changing circumstances. His vision extends beyond immediate profits to the long-term sustainability and well-being of his community. As he continues to pilot the challenges of El Nin o, his story serves as an inspiration to fellow aquaculture producers and entrepreneurs alike.###(MCMBuala/DA-RAFIS 6)