Unless something is done soon, the succulent lapu-lapu will soon no longer be part of the menu in your favorite Chinese restaurant. The reason: the supply is facing imminent collapse!
Forty years of unregulated cyanide and dynamite fishing, in addition to the rising trend to target vulnerable spawning areas of lapu-lapu, have all contributed to the rapid disappearance of the highly valued fish.
Most of the spawning areas of lapu-lapu can be found in Palawan, the country’s last frontier. Palawan and its territorial waters host some of the most productive yet exploited fisheries on earth, according to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), a global conservation group.
“Unless we preserve remaining wild stocks today, Palawan’s fisheries will not be able to replenish and will collapse by 2020,” deplored Dr. Geoffrey Muldoon, live reef fish strategy leader for WWF’s Coral Triangle Program.
The Philippines is considered to be the centre of the Coral Triangle, a region between the Pacific and Indian Oceans that harbors 75 percent of all known species of plants and animals that thrive among coral reefs.
The Palawan live reef fish trade has supplied business lunches and expensive banquets in Asia since the 1980s, bringing more than 100 million dollars a year to fishermen who often use cyanide or explosives to stun the fish.
“Our wild stocks for lapu-lapu are fast becoming depleted because of overfishing as a result of their high price and big market abroad,” said Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, executive director of the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Marine and Aquatic Research and Development (PCAMRD).
Citing surveys, Muldoon said that 60 percent of all groupers taken from Palawan’s reefs are juveniles, an indication that adults have been heavily depleted and that as a whole, the ecosystem has been “badly over fished.”
Less than five percent of Philippine-caught lapu-lapu are sold locally, as these were often rejected by foreign importers, the WWF said in a statement. Unlike most other fish species which are chilled or frozen, groupers are generally sold alive in markets.
The fish was named after the national hero who killed Ferdinand Magellan in the Battle of Mactan. But internationally, the fish is known as grouper. The name comes from the word for the fish, most widely believed to be from the Portuguese term, garoupa. The origin of this name in Portuguese is believed to be from an indigenous South American language.
Grouper is one of them most expensive fish in the market and it is valued because of its texture and taste as well as its great potential in the aquaculture market. The demand of the groupers in the international market is fast growing particularly in Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore and mainland China.
In Hong Kong, lapu-lapu fetches up to P6, 000 per piece. “Most Hong Kong people now choose to eat grouper because of the firm flesh. It’s tastier,” Ng Wai Lun, a restaurant owner in Hong Kong, told a news agency. “Farmed fish is less tasty and fresh.”
Just for the information of the uninformed, in the blockbuster movie, Drunken Master, steamed grouper was one of the many dishes Jackie Chan’s character requests during an attempted meal-theft.
Groupers are mostly solitary–often lethargic looking–reef predators from the family Serranidae. They have a stout body and a large mouth. They are not built for long-distance fast swimming. They can be quite large, and lengths over a meter and weights up to 100 kilograms are not uncommon. They swallow prey rather than biting pieces off it. Habitually, they eat fish, octopus, crab, and lobster. They lie in wait, rather than chasing in open water.
The fish’s mouth and gills form a powerful sucking system that sucks their prey in from a distance. They also use their mouth to dig into sand in order to form their shelters under big rocks, jetting it out through their gills. Their gill muscles are reportedly so powerful, that it is nearly impossible to pull them out of their cave if they feel attacked and extend them in order to lock themselves in.
According to the filmmaker Graham Ferreira, there is at least one record, from Mozambique, of a human being killed by a grouper. Arthur C. Clarke wrote that while scuba diving in an inlet on the coast of Sri Lanka, he saw a grouper about 20feet long and 4feet thick side to side, living in a sunken floating dock.
A recent survey conducted by the WWF showed that 20 of 161 species of grouper, a reef fish that makes up a large part of the Coral Triangle’s live fish trade, were threatened with extinction.
The 20 include the squaretail coral grouper and humpback grouper, which are a popular luxury live food in Asian seafood restaurants, according to the world conservation organization.
In Palawan, catching live fish, including groupers, is easy. Crush a couple of sodium cyanide tablets into a squeegee bottle of water, dive around a coral reef, find a fish you fancy, and squirt the toxic liquid into its face. The mixture stuns the fish without killing it, making it easy to catch in a net, or even by hand.
With cyanide you can catch dozens. But the method proved to be devastating: chronic overfishing that is undermining the country’s ability to feed itself. “Look at the places where live reef fishing started a decade ago; they have all been fished out now,” lamented a WWF staff. “The traders and the migrant fishermen just scoop it all up and move on.”
The future seems bleak. “Our lapu-lapu fishery does not contribute much to our fisheries production,” noted Dr. Guerrero. “Small pelagics such as anchovy, sardine, and mackerel constitute the bulk of our marine fisheries.”
However, the PCAMRD head believes that there is still hope for lapu-lapu fishery. “To conserve them, fishing pressure should be regulated and marine reserves where they are protected should be maintained,” he suggested. “Breeding them in captivity is another way.”