Norma A. Respicio
Professor, Art Studies Department, College of Arts and Letters, University of the Philippines

Northwestern Luzon, Philippines, has a narrow coastal plain and a hilly inland terrain, both of which are full of rivers and streams that originate in the Gran Cordillera mountain range. The Ilocano ethno-linguistic communities make up most of the region’s population. Given the geographic location on the seacoast and near the mouths of rivers, fishing is an important economic activity for most inhabitants.

Fed by several tributaries from the Gran Cordillera, the rivers of the region grow wide and deep. During the rainy season from June to November, the rivers turn so unruly that they reform river banks and erode hillsides. In contrast to this period, the dry summer season, from December to May, is marked by calm and smooth waters. It is during these calmer summer months that the rivers become a major resource for the communities.

To access the variety of riverine life, the Ilocano people have developed various types of fish traps. All the traps are made entirely from strips of kawayan, a giant bamboo variety that grows in abundance locally. This material is quite durable and can withstand weeks and even months of submersion. The men in the communities usually make the fish traps. They gather the materials and cut the bamboo into thick sturdy strips for the framework and into finer cuts for the greater body. The overall shape of the bamboo fish traps and the interior funnels are fashioned according to tradition and further refashioned or perfected based on observations of the movements and the flow of the river.

A popular fish trap set in big rivers is the bubo. It is most remarkable for its very fine finish and cylindrical body. In use, it is positioned along the current to ensnare schools of fish going upstream. Large stones are piled on either side to keep it steady. The body has a sturdy inner framework on which innumerable fine strips are neatly interwoven to form a symmetrical outer body.

The flat thick strips forming the inner frame are gathered around a circular opening that is lashed with fine strips of rattan at the tail end, which is plugged with a wooden stopper when the trap set in the river. At the opposite end are small rounded entrances that lead to a funnel-shaped, one-way valve interior, where balls of powdered and grilled rice bran are placed as bait. A bubo with five entrances commonly measures between 52 cm and 80 cm in length and has an 83 cm diameter. A bubo with nine entries can be as long as 160 cm with a 113 cm diameter. These traps can yield a catch between 10 and 12 kilograms.

The barekbek is a trap that is set in rivers and streams in groups of three or five traps, and all the trap openings are positioned opposite to the currents. While shaped similarly to the bubo, the barekbek is much smaller, measuring 43 centimeters from base to tip with a diameter of 35cm. The barekbek is sturdier; the bamboo strips making up the cylinder are thicker and woven into a sturdier framework. The interior is made of two funnels, one near the opening at the base and the other just opposite, near the tip. Dried fermented rice balls are placed inside the funnels as bait. It is said that the sour smell of fermented rice attracts all types of creatures, including river shrimp, crabs, and eels.

The most formidable of the bamboo traps is the pamurakan. Shaped like a giant hammock, the pamurakan is 2.5 m long and 2.3 m across. Its voluminous body is reinforced with a pair of bamboo slats, and the surrounding rim-opening is strengthened with a rattan lining. The symmetrical pamurakan is made stronger with slatted bamboo weaving. The trap is half submerged in brackish water with its bottom side up. Underneath are piles of twigs and leafy branches that provide shelter to fish, crustaceans, and other riverine life during the hot summer months. After a month or two, the pamurakan is flipped in one concerted swipe, turning the open side of the trap upwards, above the water. The process scoops the twigs and bundled sticks but more importantly, the fish and crustaceans that sheltered in them.

Kawayan fish traps are sturdy and durable, and most trap varieties can last for a decade or more, as long as they are hung to dry under the shade immediately after use or kept under the kitchen roof for constant smoking during the winter months when they are not in use.