Raising Leopards in the Coral Triangle | WWF

Raising Leopards in the Coral Triangle

Posted on 06 November 2013    
In an offshore grow-out cage in Palawan, an adult Leopard Coral Trout (Plectropomus leopardus) is held aloft prior to shipping. WWF and its allies are working with local communities to catalyze a shift to full-cycle mariculture, where fish are bred and raised in captivity without the need to draw from wild stocks.
© Gregg Yann / WWF
By Gregg Yann

Ever seen a Chinese restaurant without a bubbling tankful of grouper? Groupers are among Asia’s most sought-after reef fish – and millions of them are plucked from the sea to sate rising demand.

Though there are 161 species, one reigns supreme – the Leopard Coral Trout (Plectropomus leopardus), a colourful crimson fellow which fetches up to USD150 in Hong Kong and Singapore.

The Philippine island of Palawan hosts 40 percent of the country’s reefs and generates 55 percent of its seafood, including the highly-valued leopard coral trout, locally called suno. The fish are exported to Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, China, and other seafood hubs – where it is believed that eating red fish kept alive just moments before is not only more savory, but the secret to a long and prosperous life.

The trade in leopard coral trout contributes over USD25 million to annual Philippine revenues and supports the livelihoods of at least 100,000 people. Sadly, 40 years of once-unregulated cyanide and dynamite fishing, the rising trend of targeting vulnerable spawning areas and the rampant collection of juvenile fish almost destroyed Palawan’s live reef food fish trade.

The Road to Full-cycle Aquaculture

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

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, tens of thousands of juveniles are caught using traps or baited hooks and kept in heavily-guarded offshore cages, where the fish endure temperature fluctuations, overcrowded conditions, diseases – even the occasional sneaky fish cage poacher. Up to 10 months of constant feeding and protection is 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 USD60.

“Buyers then classify and rate the fish before exporting them by sea or by air to consumer nations. A steaming plate of leopard coral trout can fetch as much as USD150 in a posh Chinese restaurant,” explains WWF-Philippines Conservation Programmes Vice-president Joel Palma. Less than 5 percent of Philippine-caught groupers are sold locally. Often these have been rejected by foreign importers.

“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, WWF’s Coral Triangle Strategy Leader for the Live Reef Food Fish Trade. “WWF believes in the synergy of environmentalism and economics. Our goal is to achieve full-cycle mariculture for leopard coral trout, freeing live reef food fish trade players from having to catch groupers from the wild and giving wild stocks a breather from half-a-century of fishing.”

Full-cycle mariculture entails the production of seafood without the need to draw from wild stocks. Mid-value marine 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 kilogrammes of low-grade fish, usually termed ‘trash-fish’ – is required to produce a kilo of grouper meat. “Feed-to-mass ratios must be improved. To truly minimize impacts, the sourcing of feeds must also be considered,” adds Palma.

To protect vital grouper spawning sites, WWF and its allies commissioned science-based studies to guide Palawan fisheries officers on how to identify, establish and manage Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). A concept pioneered by Filipino scientists in 1974, MPAs are portions of marine habitats which enjoy varying levels of protection – from no-take to limited-use classifications. Over a thousand MPAs are now spread across the archipelago.

Two years after declaring new MPAs and protecting fish spawning areas, fisherfolk in the area are reporting good news. “We can already see improvements in coral cover within and outside the protected zones,” testifies Taytay Municipal Administrator Robinson Morales. It is hoped that these conservation interventions will allow grouper stocks to recover.

The US government, through the coordinated efforts of USAID, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, Department of State and other agencies collectively known as the USCTI Support Program provided technical and financial assistance to the six Coral Triangle country governments through the Coral Triangle Support Partnership (CTSP). The five-year CTSP is US government funded and implemented through Conservation International (CI), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

According to a 2009 WWF report, coral reefs may disappear from the Coral Triangle by the end of the century and the ability of the region’s coastal environments to feed people might decline by 80 percent if no effective conservation measures are implemented. Concludes Palma, “Going beyond science, beyond policy, beyond plans and pilots, our collective goal should be to give our stakeholders and allies a future where they can reap strong, sustainable benefits."

For more information, please contact:

Dr. Geoffrey Muldoon
Live Reef Fish Trade Strategy Leader, WWF Coral Triangle Programme

Mr. Joel Palma
Conservation Programmes Vice-president, WWF-Philippines

Mr. Gregg Yan
Communications and Media Manager, WWF-Philippines

In an offshore grow-out cage in Palawan, an adult Leopard Coral Trout (Plectropomus leopardus) is held aloft prior to shipping. WWF and its allies are working with local communities to catalyze a shift to full-cycle mariculture, where fish are bred and raised in captivity without the need to draw from wild stocks.
© Gregg Yann / WWF Enlarge
Hundreds of market-grade Leopard Coral Trout are prepared for export. In Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China, a single red grouper can be sold for as much as $150 or PHP6000
© Gregg Yan / WWF Enlarge
Leopard Red Grouper grow-out paraphernalia in Quezon, Southern Palawan. It takes up to 10 months of protection and feeding to produce one batch of marketable Suno.
© Gregg Yan / WWF Enlarge

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