Visit a local Chinese restaurant and you will most likely see an aquarium filled with live lapu-lapu, waiting for a diner’s beckoning. Popular for its mild sweet flavor, lapu-lapu—whether steamed, fried or sautéed—is a staple in these restaurants’ menus.
Unfortunately, this fish and its family is slowly diminishing.
In a recently published study by Haribon Foundation and Newcastle University UK under the Darwin Initiative Project 19-020, “Responding to Fish Extirpations in the Global Marine Epicenter of Shorefish Diversity”, the Giant Grouper (Epinephelus lanceolatus) locally known as lapu-lapu or kugtong—together with Bumphead Parrotfish and Humphead Wrasse—was revealed to be disappearing from catches in five marine areas in the Philippines: Lanuza Bay in Surigao del Sur, Danajon Bank in Bohol, Verde Island Passage, Polillo Islands, and Honda Bay in Palawan.
In fact, the 7-feet long and 176-kilo heavy grouper spotted in 2015 in Antique may be one of the last few large individuals of these particular species.
The giant grouper is the largest coral reef dwelling species in the world and is categorized as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. This means that the giant grouper is now considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.
Role in marine ecosystem, market demand
The probable disappearance of these species will likely cause an imbalance in the marine ecosystem. Being piscivores or fish eaters, they ensure the balance in the food chain by controlling fish populations such as the algae eaters or herbivores, and other carnivores.
Additionally, the fact that they are one of the largest coral reef predators help them sustain healthy fish and other invertebrate populations by eating sick and/or old marine animals.
Consequently, their absence will increase other fish populations.
Known for the quality of their flesh, groupers are being traded locally and internationally and live groupers command the highest price. Because of this, the live reef food fish trade (LRFFT) industry is known to be driving the capture of grouper species. This puts pressure on the species caught in the wild, tempting fishers who target these species to use illegal fishing methods to get a good catch. The Philippines and Indonesia were reported to be the main sources of grouper imports including the giant groupers.
The problem lies in the traits of the fishes in demand. Most people would buy fish that are “plate-sized”—not too small, not too big; a size that perfectly fits on a platter which is good for a family of 5 or 6. These “plate-sized” individuals are likely juvenile groupers that have not undergone sexual maturity. Large species, on the other hand are believed to be less marketable not only to the individual but also to restaurants and hotels since they are harder to cook without chopping the fish into pieces.
The quick solution is to increase of population of other fish species, however, it will only put more pressure to their respective preys, leading to the possible collapse of the entire food chain. This worst case scenario will not only mean loss of income for fishers, fish traders, and restaurant owners but also loss of this particular food source for the rest of the fish-eating public.
What we can do
Since the grouper industry is market-driven, fish traders and consumers should avoid buying, selling, and consuming Giant Grouper. The same call goes for other threatened grouper species such as the Humpback grouper, which is also classified as “vulnerable.”
The Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources of the Department of Agriculture (DA-BFAR) should also strengthen the implementation Fisheries Code of 1998 (RA 8550) and the recently approved Internal Rules and Regulation of RA 8550 (RA 10654), the Aquatic Wildlife Conservation (DA-FAO 233), in protecting and conserving these groupers and other threatened fish species in the country.
Now that seven grouper species are also identified as being heavily depleted and nearing local extinction, the DA-BFAR should already flag these species for conservation and reduce the exports by including these in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Finally, local government units, communities and their partner civil society organizations should implement measures to reduce catching of juveniles, stricter implementation of fishery laws to catch dynamite and cyanide-using fishers, and support People’s Organizations (POs) implementing marine conservation initiatives with local governments.
Erina Pauline Molina is Haribon’s marine scientist. She’s currently the principal investigator for a marine project of National Geographic.
* * *
Conservation research efforts in five Philippine marine key biodiversity areas in the Philippines(Lanuza Bay, Surigao del Sur; Verde Island Passage; Danajon Bank of Northern Bohol; Honda Bay in Palawan, and the Polillo Islands, Quezon) are being supported by the Darwin Initiative of the United Kingdom (UK) government through the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) a grant and in partnership with the Newcastle University of the United Kingdom (UK.) under the Darwin Initiative. The project, “Responding to Fish Extirpations in the Global Marine Biodiversity Epicenter” spans four years, from April 2012 to March 2016. For more information on the Darwin Project, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.