Lapu-Lapu on the Red List

by Henrylito D. Tacio

The Philippines is home to at least 27 species of grouper, more popularly known as lapu-lapu. Unfortunately, six of these species are now considered as either “vulnerable” or “near-threatened,” according to a report which appeared in “Philippine Daily Inquirer” recently.

According to Ronnel W. Domingo, author of the report, the 27 species were identified by Apolinario V. Yambot through “molecular inventory.” For the first time in the Philippines, DNA fingerprinting and barcoding was used in identifying the species.

“Through the database that we came up with based on the study, we found that some species that fish growers thought were not available locally were, in fact, thriving in our waters,” Yambot, head of the Biotechnology and Analytical Laboratory Project of the Central Luzon State University, was quoted as saying.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species listed six of the identified species as “vulnerable” or “near-threatened.” It includes humpback grouper which thrives in the waters of Davao, Zamboanga, and Cebu.

Domingo listed the following species to be also on the red list: black saddled coral grouper, orange-spotted grouper, black marbled grouper, Malabar grouper, and leopard coral grouper.

It is now a common knowledge: Chinese restaurants are not complete without a bubbling tankful of grouper. Asia’s most demanded reef fish, grouper fetches up to P6.000 per piece in Hong Kong and Singapore. In the blockbuster movie, “Drunken Master,” steamed grouper was one of the many dishes Jackie Chan’s character requests during an attempted meal-theft.

Most of the fish comes from the Philippines, as the country is considered the center of the Coral Triangle, a region between the Pacific and Indian Oceans that harbors 75 % of all known species of plants and animals that thrive among coral reefs.

“The grouper fish is widely cultured in the pristine waters of the Philippines, where it is known as lapu-lapu,” one scribe notes. “This commodity is valued for its superb taste and its big potential in the export market.”

Unfortunately, four decades of unregulated cyanide and dynamite fishing — plus a rising trend to target vulnerable spawning areas – are threatening wild stocks of lapu-lapu with total collapse.

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 the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), a global conservation group. “The traders and the migrant fishermen just scoop it all up and move on.”

Most of the spawning areas of lapu-lapu in the Philippines are 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 WWF.

“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.

Fishery expert Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III agrees. “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 the co-proprietor of Aquatic Biosystems, a consulting and marketing firm based in Bay, Laguna.

Lapu-lapu is named after Cebu’s chieftain, who killed Ferdinand Magellan in the Battle of Mactan. Many groupers can change color, depending on their surroundings. They are highly valued as a food fish, with firm, lean flesh that is suitable for almost any type of cooking. You may like it steamed, deep fried, grilled or prepared as sashimi.

Groupers may be found along coastal areas around the world, especially in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. For more than a decade, groupers have been cultured in ponds and cages in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines.

Today, groupers are facing extinction. In fact, 20 of the world’s 162 known species are threatened with extinction according to a survey conducted by Conservation International (CI). Since the fish have slow reproductive rates, they are particularly vulnerable to overharvesting.

“This shows that over-fishing could decimate another major food and economic resource for humans, similar to the loss of the cod stocks off New England and Canada that has put thousands of people out of work,” warned Roger McManus, a senior director of CI’s Marine Program.

In the Philippines, Dr. Guerrero 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.”

Of the species of groupers that abound in Philippine seas, only a few are suited for farming in marine ponds and cages. Grouper fingerlings used for stocking ponds and cages are caught from the wild by fishermen and sold to the growers. The major source of grouper fry are in the provinces of Pangasinan, Cavite, Mindoro, Quezon, Masbate, Bulacan, Cagayan, south Cotabato, and Negros Occidental.

Grouper fry are collected in nominal quantities using various devices like scare lines and brush piles. The size of fry varies from one to nine centimeters and is collected by fish traps from coastal waters near mangrove areas.

For those who want to raise Green Grouper, you can buy fry anytime of the year from the Finfish Hatcheries, Inc. Its hatchery site is located at Lun Masla, Malapatan, Sarangani Province. “There’s no minimum order from us,” says Rene B. Bocaya, its national sales manager.

Groupers are carnivorous and voracious fish. “The common method of feeding the grouper is by giving it live fish like tilapia,” says Dr. Guerrero. “This can be done by either rearing Mozambique tilapia in a pond and then harvesting this to feed to grouper stocked in another pond, or both grouper and the ‘feed fish’ are raised together in the same pond.”

Lapu-lapu can also be raised in cages. Feeding is generally by means of trash fish given at frequencies ranging from twice a day to every two to three days. Feeding to satiation is commonly applied. It takes around four to five kilograms of trash fish to produce a kilogram of grouper.

“The culture period for grouper in ponds and cages takes four to six months, depending on the size of fingerlings stocked and management,” Dr. Guerrero says. “Marketable sizes for the fish range from 0.5 to 1.0 kilogram per fish.”