A Fish Called Lapu-Lapu

In an offshore grow-out cage in Palawan, an adult leopard coral trout ( Plectropomus leopardus)  is held aloft prior to export.  (Photo by Gregg Yan)

In an offshore grow-out cage in Palawan, an adult leopard coral trout (Plectropomus leopardus) is held aloft prior to export. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

Ever seen a Chinese restaurant without a bubbling tankful of lapu-lapu? Named after Cebu’s legendary chieftain, the lapu-lapu or grouper is among Asia’s most sought-after reef fish. Millions are plucked from the sea to sate soaring demand.

Although there are 161 grouper species, one reigns supreme—the leopard coral trout (Plectropomus leopardus), a colorful crimson fish which, when cooked, fetches up to $150 in Hongkong and Singapore.  

The primeval island of Palawan hosts 40 percent of the Philippines’ coral reefs and generates 55 percent of its seafood, including the highly valued leopard coral trout. The fish are exported to Hongkong, Singapore, Malaysia, China and other seafood hubs. Many Asians believe that eating red fish kept alive just moments before cooking is not only more savory, but also the secret to a long and prosperous life.

A steaming plate of leopard coral trout can fetch as much as $150 in a posh Chinese restaurant.

Unknown to most Pinoys, the trade in leopard coral trout contributes over $25M to annual Philippine revenues and supports the livelihoods of at least 100,000 people.

Most high-value grouper species are wild-caught, as the technology to breed and raise delicate marine fish such as leopard coral trout and the CITES-protected humphead wrasse at commercial scales is still several years off.

Hundreds of market-grade leopard coral trout are prepared for export to Manila and other Asian hubs. In Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China, a single red grouper can be sold for as much as $150 or PHP6000. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

Grow-out systems based on juvenile capture and known colloquially as “ranching” remains the most popular method for leopard coral trout culture. To fuel the trade, thousands of juveniles are caught using traps or baited hooks and fattened in heavily guarded offshore cages. There the fish endure temperature fluctuations, overcrowded conditions, diseases, plus the occasional sneaky fish cage poacher. Up to ten months of constant feeding and protection are needed to produce a batch of marketable fish, each around a foot long and weighing from 500 to 700 grams. At this stage, a single head retails for about $60.

Buyers then classify and rate the fish before shipping or flying them to consumer nations. A steaming plate of leopard coral trout can fetch as much as $150 in a posh Chinese restaurant. Surprisingly, less than five percent of Philippine-caught groupers are sold locally. Often, these have been rejected by foreign importers.

Cheaper (but still tasty) species like green and tiger groupers are already been farmed on commercial scales. Here three green groupers await their fate, which most probably, is on a dinner plate. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

“Surveys have shown that over half of all groupers taken from Palawan’s reefs are juveniles, a clear indication that adults have been heavily depleted,” notes Dr. Geoffrey Muldoon, an international expert on the Live Reef Fish (LRF) trade.

“A good solution is to move towards full-cycle mariculture, freeing suppliers from having to catch wild groupers to give Palawan’s reefs a breather from half-a-century of fishing,” he adds.

Full-cycle mariculture entails the production of seafood while minimizing or eliminating the need to draw from wild stocks. Tougher but cheaper species such as tiger and green groupers have been successfully bred and reared in captivity since the year 2000.

A major issue in cultivating carnivorous fish is that around seven kilograms of low-grade fish, usually termed “trash-fish,” are required to produce a kilo of grouper meat.

“Full cycle mariculture has the potential to feed millions, while minimizing natural impacts,” concludes Muldoon.

Gregg Yan

Gregg Yan serves as the Communications and Media Manager for WWF-Philippines. He has written hundreds of stories on the environment, ranging from renewable energy shifts to satellite tagging for whale sharks. His goal is to convince people that sustainable living offers excellent economic and holistic returns. For more information, add him up on Facebook.