Santa: Ipon, The Mysterious Little Fishes
Almost immediately after entering the town proper of Santa, Ilocos Sur, you will be meeting with several women selling tiny fish. These fish are called “ipon”, and Santa is blessed to have plenty of them. This is the town’s prized fish, as evidenced by its depiction in its welcome arch and in the town’s seal (the latter being shown together with a bolo, symbolizing the town’s another pride, the heroine Gabriela Silang).
I wonder how these tiny fish are being caught, and out of curiosity, we decided to stop by the town after coming from our journey in Abra. Ipon is not new to me, in fact, we are often served with Ipon-based dish whenever we visit Vigan during the months of November. It is often misunderstood or mispronounced as “hipon”, the local name for shrimp, they sounded very closely similar and has similar features.
At the coastline, not far from the town proper, are lots of fishing boats harvesting these fish. We thought there is a fiesta because of the crowd when we arrived, but we later learned that it is the harvest season. Almost every minute there are boats arriving to haul down caught ipon. The catch is a little bit gooey and has a strong fishy smell.
For the residents, these species of fish are still a mystery because they only appeared after the full moons of August up to January. And during this period, the fishermen are preparing to catch these using fine nets.
And to be sure, I did a little research and stumbled on an archive of the Philippine Bureau of Science Monographic Publications published in 1929. Imagine, the Americans are already studying Ipon way back to 1929. The Bureau of Science is most likely the predecessor of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) during the American occupation. According to their published report:
Ipon is an Ilocano name for the fry of the various species of gobies that spawn in the sea, but which spend most of their life in the fresh-water streams of the interior. Ipon, or the fry of gobies, occur also in noticeable quantity along the coast of Zambales, and perhaps other places in the Philippines, but it is only along the north and northwest coasts of Luzon that they occur in such enormous quantities that their capture and preservation form one of the chief resources of the region and one of the most valuable sources of income.
Only a few species of gobies occur in sufficient quantity and at the same time have a life history so modified and arranged as to bring about the production of enormous quantities of ipon.
As far as is known at present, the chief but by no means the only sources of ipon are the following species (their ordinary Ilocano names are also given): Chonophorus melanocephalus, bukto and bunog; Eleotris melanosoma, virot; Glossogobius giurus and Glossogobius celebius, balla; Ophiocara aporos; and Sicyopterus lacrymosus, paliling.
During the months from August to February these species, and many others, successively make their way down to the sea and there lay their eggs.
From about the middle of September to the middle of March vast shoals of tiny, more or less colorless or whitish, scaleless gobies make their appearance at the mouths of Philippine rivers, especially in northern Luzon. They are most abundant for about three days after the full moon each month when the tides are highest.
This little fish is a very important source of ipon along the Ilocano coast during the period from the last of August to December, about three months, the exact dates fluctuating according to weather conditions and other factors.
And so the mystery is somewhat resolved. And the reason why they are almost exclusively abundant in the coastline of Santa is, this is the where the mouth of the Abra River is located. There are also a significant number of ipon in the mouths of Pasdan River in Laoag, Cagayan River in Aparri and Amburayan River in Bangar.
Because these fish appears only during specific parts of the year, avid buyers are crazy and eagerly waiting for the season’s first harvest. During the first harvest, sales can be as much as PhP350-400 per kilo. Later during the harvest season, the price can go to as low as PhP150-200 per kilo. Its extraordinary taste and texture are often mixed in a variety of Ilocano dishes such as sinigang, kilawen, lumpiang ipon and others. Tupang Gala’s favorite ipon dish are ipon soup and scrambled egg.
To give thanks to this bountiful blessing, the town of Santa has an Ipon Festival, which starts from November 25 and usually lasts up to Christmas time when harvests are at its peak. Among the festival’s highlights is the harvest itself, the different ipon-based recipes and some games.
Santa is located 387kms or an equivalent of 7 hours travel from Manila. There are bus companies like Partas, Dominion, Viron, Fariñas, and Florida offering regular trips from Manila to Vigan or Laoag that passes through this town. The coastline is only 500 meters from the town proper.
The best time to visit here is three days after the full moon. It is the time when the month’s catch is at its highest.
DASH OF HISTORY
Gabriela Silang was born right on this town on March 19, 1731. Regarded as the first heroine of Ilocos, she took over the reins of her husband Diego Silang’s revolutionary movement after his assassination in 1763, leading the Ilocano revolt against the Spanish government for four months before her subsequent capture and execution by the colonizers.
The monument of Gabriela Silang can be located in the plaza of Santa.
- Santa Church and Municipal Hall
- Gabriela Silang Monument
- Banaoang Bridge