“Whatever you do, don’t fall into that fish pen,” warns Daryl Dandal, an offshore cage warden. “It has two giant groupers, and both are larger than you.” Those are fish. I am a grown man. I steer clear of the giant grouper.
Instead I make my way through a network of planks above the glittering waters of Taytay in Palawan, Philippines. Here wardens like Daryl guard about 2,000 fish cages, where various species of grouper are grown to feed a ballooning export trade. For the Philippines, this is the center of the LRFFT: the live reef food fish trade.
What began in the 1980s as an experiment now employs over 100,000 people in Palawan alone. Palawan’s annual grouper exports exceed US$40 million – but is the trade truly sustainable?
If you’ve ever eaten at a Chinese restaurant, you’ve probably noticed a bubbling tankful of grouper. The lethargic predators are among Asia’s most sought-after reef fish, prized for taste and texture. Across the Philippines, millions of juveniles are caught before they reproduce, raising serious concerns about LRFFT’s sustainability.
Although there are 161 grouper species, the apple of traders’ eyes is the leopard coral trout, a crimson fish that currently fetches up to US$160 per kilogramme in Hong Kong and US$300 per kilogramme in China.
“When the trade started in the 1980s, most wild-caught groupers were market-sized, each around a foot long,” recounts Dr. Geoffrey Muldoon, who leads WWF’s strategy on LRFFT in the Coral Triangle. “After 30 years, most of the large ones have been fished out. Today just one in five wild-caught groupers is market-sized. Since there aren’t enough adults to go around, the trade turned to ranching, a system where juveniles are caught and grown in guarded offshore cages.”
Within submerged cages and pens, groupers must endure temperature fluctuations, overcrowding and diseases. Many die in the process. Those that survive around 10 months in captivity are sold as market-sized fish – each around a foot long and weighing from 500 to 700 grams. At this stage in the supply chain, a single suno, as the leopard coral trout is locally known, retails for about US$60.
It’s a lucrative livelihood. Fishers earn up to 50 times more selling a kilogramme of suno than other types of fish. Federico and Nida Ellut from northern Palawan sent their three children to school from their income as grouper collectors. “From a simple straw hut, we now have a two-bedroom concrete home. We’re also saving to buy our third boat,” says Nida. Money talks – but extraction always has hidden costs.
The current system of LRFFT collection is untenable: WWF surveys have shown that over half the groupers taken from Palawan’s reefs are juveniles, a clear sign of dangerous stock depletion.
“Overharvesting has been a huge problem. Fishers were catching five times more than what could be sustained. Spawning aggregations were targeted, depleting brood-stock. Fortunately local governments and fishing communities have embraced conservation efforts,” says WWF-Philippines Project Manager Mavic Matillano. WWF is now leading efforts to facilitate the recovery of suno stocks by establishing marine protected areas, plus enhanced enforcement, licensing and education. And alternative solutions may also exist.
“Given the fishery’s dependence on wild juveniles, a way forward is through full-cycle mariculture, potentially freeing suppliers from having to catch wild fish,” explains Muldoon.
First mastered by the Taiwanese in the 1970s, full-cycle mariculture (the production of fish or invertebrates in seawater, as opposed to freshwater aquaculture) is meant to minimize or eliminate the need to draw from wild stocks. Hardier but lower-value species such as green grouper and tiger grouper have been successfully bred and reared in captivity since the year 2000. Few have met success with finicky leopard coral trout, but the Palawan Aquaculture Corporation claims to have successfully bred them – a vital first step on the road to full-cycle mariculture.
Farmed suno might soon be a commercial reality, but the clock is ticking. “Just a few years ago, the panther grouper was at the top of the LRFFT heap,” say Matillano. “It was caught and exported by the millions, but stocks crashed and the government imposed a total ban on the panther grouper. The suno was next in line and it became the trade’s big offering.”
How long before the suno population crashes? If it does, the market will likely move on to other fish, continuing the pattern of over-consumption. Fishy business for sure – but farming the sea’s leopards, tigers and panthers may be a way forward.