Survival in the Time of Aquarium Fish Trading
photos by Jürgen Freund
Note: The character’s name has been changed in the interest of anonymity.

Jose’s work day begins at five a.m. He is the boat captain of a fishing expedition team of six, scouring the surrounding waters of Verde Island to supply the burgeoning aquarium fish trade in Southeast Asia.

Situated between the provinces of Batangas and Mindoro in the Philippines, Verde Island and the Verde Passage Corridor cover about 1.14 million hectares of ocean, with currents that funnel nutrients from the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea. All this ocean activity encourages the movement of diverse marine life in these waters. A coral survey jointly conducted in 2007 by the Smithsonian Institute and IUCN, the World Conservation Union, recorded over 300 species of corals, and nearly 60 percent of the world’s known shore fish species. Endangered species that thrive in the area include sea turtles, humphead wrasses, whale sharks, and giant clams.

The abundance of marine life around these waters has made the collection of ornamental marine species a big business in Verde Island. Aquarium fish collection and trading in the area is mostly a family activity that has persevered for decades. A fishing group is usually composed of immediate and extended family members. In the collection process, small children help in the packing of fish, the older males join in the fishing, and the mothers are assigned in the recording of catch and purchasing of needed materials. Trading is done either by the husband and/or wife with the children helping in the loading and delivery of the collected fish.

Collecting the fish

After a four-hour journey, Jose’s team arrives at a collection site about 200 meters away from the shoreline. A barrier net is pitched beside a coral reef. Divers drive fish into it with a wave of their hands. Fish trapped in the net are scooped up and put into plastic bags, and an injection needle is used to
remove air from the swim bladder to decompress the fish. All caught fish – typically angelfish, tangs, butterflies, hogfish and female bird wrasses – are transported in large plastic bags. Jose’s team of roving collectors move from one coastal village to another in search of aquarium fish.

Jose has been in the business for over two decades. As a teenager, he learned to free dive and became what locals refer to as a mano-mano collector, diving up to depths of 15 to 20 feet to collect shallow-dwelling marine life. Eventually he became a hookah diver, able to dive to greater depths of up to 50 feet with the aid of a surface-air supplying engine called a “hookah” or “compressor” stationed in the boat. This way, Jose could stay underwater much longer to catch more fish and dive deeper to collect high-end, in-demand species. The air-supplying apparatus accommodates two divers at a time. For a group with only two divers, an average of 20 to 40 minute-rest is taken before another dive is allowed. Dives usually last from 30 minutes to more than an hour. No special dive gear here. The divers wear long sleeved shirts, long tight pants (cycling or pedal pants), bonnets, and use masks and weight belts. Improvised flippers are made of thick ply wood or plastic materials.

Jose’s fighting spirit of survival to catch enough fish to make money in order to support his family always won over any thoughts of fear, danger, or damage to the reefs associated with the risk of gear accidents causing long-term or permanent disability, even death. By the age of 40, Jose took over the family business and became boat captain. He joined the ranks of collectors known as taong ibabaw, which literally means “man on top”, as his responsibilities moved to overseeing activities on top of, rather than under, the sea.

As boat captain, Jose owns the boat, finances the fishing expedition, and is decision-maker of the team. He arranges the delivery of their catch and negotiates with the buyers. During actual collection, he may also work as a diver, as a lineman assigned to guard the surface during diving to ensure the safety of the divers, or as a boatman.

Roving collection is done all year round. Collection activities peak from March to May when there are no storms in the area, the sea is generally calm and water temperature is conducive for diving. On this season, fishing expeditions range from three to five per month. Each expedition is usually five to seven days long. The duration of the trip depends on the volume of their catch, weather conditions, and availability of their provision - especially rice and fuel. Sometimes, the state of the boat and its engine will shorten the trip. A fishing expedition comes to an end when the boat is full of aquarium fish, which often takes two to three days. During lean seasons when fish volume is low, the operation is continued until the provisions are consumed.

Collecting, stocking, and screening of fish

Most of the collected fish are packed individually. However, to economize on space, some are paired up in one bag - for example, a clownfish and a damsel, a wrasse and a butterflyfish. Others are “gangpacked”, with no more than 10 fish per 14 X 28 plastic bags. The plastic bags used are large enough for the fish to move freely inside. Oxygen to water ratio in the sealed bags is estimated to be 30:70 to 30:60 (30 to 40% oxygen with 60 to 70% water).

The packed fish are stocked in the boat throughout the duration of Jose’s fish expedition. Newly caught fish are repacked twice a day for one to two days. On the third day, repacking is done only if the water in the bags is dirty with fish effluents. Fish are stocked in the front or sides of the boat. Some boats have hulls with three to five levels, which keep the stocked bags in an upright position. Bags on the sides, in the unshaded areas, are covered with cloth, sack or buri mats and are splashed with water frequently to keep them cool. Upon the arrival of the boat in Verde Island, the fish are inspected and repacked for delivery to the exporters.

There is no thorough or formal process in screening the fish. Only the low-priced accidental catch is removed from the stocks during packing. During repacking, only the dead and near-dead fish are removed.

A final round of packing for delivery to the exporter’s facility is done as early as five in the Morning on the final day of the expedition, upon the arrival of Jose’s fishing boat in San Andres. As the rest of the team’s responsibilities have come to an end after loading their catch on the boat to Batangas
City, Jose must ensure the delivery of the fish stocks to the exporters’ facilities.

Profits from the trade

A successful fishing expedition usually earns Jose’s team about Php 18,000, that’s roughly US$ 400. Income of the mano-mano collectors ranges from a low of Php 900.00 to a high of Php 12,000.00 per month, while the hookah collectors’ compensation ranges from Php 900.00 to Php 19,000.00. Traders may receive a low of Php 2,500.00 to a high of Php 22,500.00. This is barely enough for Jose to support himself, his wife and five children.

The nature of the aquarium fish trade means that collectors or traders do not hold a regular job. Other sources of financial support must come from a working wife, son, or daughter. Others receive a monthly honorarium for being a member of the village council.

Aside from engaging in the aquarium fish trade, collectors and traders like Jose, or their families, are involved in other income generating activities such as piglet farming or managing sari-sari stores.

The role of conservation

The Verde Passage is one of the busiest waterways in the Philippines. Its waters are plied daily by oil and chemical carriers while on the shores of Batangas province there are shipyards, chemical and petrochemical plants and oil refineries. Intensifying tourism, the presence of port and energy facilities (oil, gas, and geothermal), as well as unsustainable fishing methods, pose grave threats to the area’s marine resources. Although commercial fishing is prohibited in the area, the aquarium fish trade is causing a heavy strain on the marine environment.

The collection of ornamental fish and other organisms from coral reefs is amongst the significant extractive activities in the Philippines, notably so in Verde Island due to the exceptional biodiversity of marine life in the area and easy access to it. On a global scale, 85 percent of the trade comes from the
Philippines and Indonesia. This ornamental trade is contributing to the over-all depletion of coral reef organisms. Thus, there is a need to develop management strategies that balance conservation and livelihood in Verde Island and the Verde Passage concerning the ornamental trade.

One of the more serious threats to marine biodiversity is the use of sodium cyanide to catch food fish and tropical aquarium fishes. Sodium cyanide is used by fishermen to stun the fish for the live fish trade but destroys the corals in the process. After decades of misuse, the corals of the Philippines have been transformed into piles of coral rubble and underwater deserts, thereby reducing its productivity over the years.

Conservation International is working to address this problem with local communities and other organizations such as Reef Check Conservation Program and the Marine Aquarium Council. Efforts have been underway to develop sustainable mechanisms for the capture of fish for the aquarium trade and
strengthening coastal law enforcement (e.g., patrolling efforts and apprehension of illegal fishers).

A CI study conducted by Reef Check Philippines proposes a scientific framework for developing catch limits, suggesting total allowable catch for various fish and invertebrate species in the Verde island, specifically for the village of San Andres. The study also proposes strengthening current no-take zones within marine protected areas (MPAs) and perhaps expanding these sites as potential sources of adults and spawns for ornamental stocks. The study proposes active involvement with collectors, like Jose, in terms of stakeholder buy-in towards implementing these proposed catch limits and in developing a simple information management system in tracking catch versus agreed catch limits. CI also advocates the involvement and the cooperation of hobbyists, pet groups, fish dealers, NGO groups, exporters and collectors in addressing unsustainable ornamental fish and marine resource collection.

Given the precarious state of the environment, one thing is for certain: conservation science has a big role to play in ensuring the survival of this precious marine habitat and the people, such as Jose, who depend on them.


  • Marine protected area (MPA) – any specific marine area that has been reserved by law or other effective means and is governed by specific rules or guidelines to manage activities and protect part or the entire enclosed coastal and marine environment. There are different MPA classifications, with some used inconsistently and interchangeably, such as marine parks, marine reserves, marine refuges, and marine sanctuaries.

    (Source: The Philippine Environmental Governance 2 Project/ECOGOV2)

  • No-take zone – a marine reserve where fishing and the collection of marine resources is prohibited by law.

Photos: CI file photos by Jürgen Freund