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From foes to friends of tropical fish

Aquarium collectors train as underwater reef guides to break stigma
/ 07:20 AM August 19, 2018

OLD TRADE A fisherman shows off the tropical fish he caught at Verde Island Passage in Batangas province. —PHOTO BY CLIFFORD NUÑEZ

VERDE ISLAND, Batangas — At a depth of 45 meters, Pedro Ebora patiently stalked his targets, net in hand, among the teeming schools of colorful tropical fish as he puffed air pumped through a rubber hose that dangled from a waiting wooden boat.

“I was (underwater) for an hour,” Ebora said, when the supply of oxygen suddenly stopped. “I felt nauseous. I could no longer [bring] myself back to the boat.”


Though he was able to swim back to the surface to join fellow fishermen, his legs were already numb. “You could cut them off with a saw and I wouldn’t feel a thing,” he said.

Ebora, 75, was teary-eyed as he recalled that incident off Verde Island 30 years ago, when he and other fishermen bereft of diving lessons in Barangay San Andres risked life and limb to capture tropical fish in their once undisturbed underwater realm so they could sell these to pet shops and hobbyists in Metro Manila.


Verde Island sits right in the middle of the Verde Island Passage (VIP), a strait between Luzon and Mindoro islands that biodiversity experts declared in 2005 the Earth’s “center of the center of marine shorefish biodiversity.”

In its bosom, bounded by  Tayabas Bay to the east and  Batangas Bay to the west, are myriads of assorted fish and corals which have lured fishermen engaged in the aquarium fish trade. They catch anthias, clownfish, tomato anemonefish, lemon damsel, rainbow wrasse, butterflyfish, cleaner wrasse and angelfish, among other species.

Normally, each live fish costs between P10 and P50, depending on species and size. The middleman sells the fish to Manila shops, with a 10- to 15-percent price markup.

Scientists and experts have warned that foreign demand for ornamental fishes has placed the Philippines in the center of an unsustainable and illegal trade of live reef and aquarium fish.

Elizabeth Wood, an expert from the Marine Conservation Society, describes the country as the “focal point” in the trade, according to an report.

Globally, the fish trade was worth at least $1 billion (P53 billion), according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. Based on 2005 data, the Philippines was the world’s biggest supplier of aquarium fishes, exporting 5.7 million fishes to the United States.

Main source of income


Since the 1970s, aquarium or ornamental fishing has been the main source of livelihood in San Andres (population: 1,200), one of the six villages on Verde Island. Other fishermen simply catch fish for food, which remains unpopular on Verde Island.

Arnold Briton, barangay chair of San Andres, said other villages would stop fishermen from getting too close to the marine sanctuaries, fearing destruction of the reefs.

“They treat us like thieves. Perhaps because that’s how they came to know us; it’s like a wound that leaves a scar,” said Briton, who was himself a fish collector but had retired from the trade.

Earning an average of P5,000 a month, aquarium fish collectors consider their job the most viable on the island. This, despite the diminishing fish catch in recent years, Briton said.

While there is no evidence of any species collected for the marine ornamental fish trade that are at risk of global extinction, “there is evidence of local depletions,” Wood said.

“Fish catch is dwindling, it’s consistent throughout the country. It’s (aquarium fishing) really not a promising livelihood,” said Gela Petines, a 27-year-old free diver.

Risky methods

Petines was part of a 2012 research team from the Ateneo de Manila University who studied the trend of fish catch in the Philippines. She cited climate change, coral bleaching and unsustainable fishing as among the reasons for the decline in fish catch.

Most of the fishermen are engaged in compressor-diving, a risky method of breathing oxygen pumped by a compressor through a hose pipe. They do not know the proper techniques of ascent, however.

Some spray sodium cyanide on coral reefs, stunning the fish to make it easier to catch them. But they insisted that the harmful practice had long been abandoned when they realized that the quality of live fish were often rejected by buyers.

“There were a lot of accidents, even deaths,” said  Tranquelino Mariano, a 63-year-old  fish gatherer.

The damage to Ebora’s legs is permanent. Propped up by poles and stilts, he now wobbles about his shack on Verde Island, about 45 minutes by boat from mainland Batangas City. After losing his livelihood, he has depended on his children and siblings for survival.

Divers call Ebora’s condition the “bends” or decompression sickness. Breathing compressed air leads to nitrogen buildup, and when one swims up too fast, nitrogen forms bubbles that are usually trapped in the joints, causing pain, stroke and paralysis.

Proper training

Their situation has drawn concern among professional divers, marine environmentalists and other like-minded individuals.

In 1989, members of Haribon Foundation trained the fish gatherers on the proper way to use nets.

Petines, 27, has started a series of crowdsourced projects for the San Andres community called “Batang VIP.”

In 2015, the program brought schoolchildren to a science museum, hoping to inspire them to continue their studies.

“A lot of children drop out as soon as they learn to fish,” Petines said. This is a reason why children cannot readily find other jobs in the city, according to longtime aquarium fish collectors.

In January, Petines and other divers began training 12 fish collectors as reef guides. Another 13 are waiting for their turn this month to learn proper diving techniques, first aid and rescue, as well as communication and financial literacy, with funds coming from the BPI Foundation Inc., the social arm of Bank of the Philippine Islands.

With their new role as reef guides, the fishermen will give guided underwater tours for P800. Dive shops in Manila also donated some 60 sets of snorkeling and diving equipment and life vests which the village rents out to guests.

As more tourists discover Verde Island, Briton said the village welcomed the alternative income for aquarium fishermen and hoped it would break the stigma on San Andres.

“We will help them transition from aquarium fishing … from that situation to a more dignified and sustainable livelihood,” Petines said.

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TAGS: aquarium collectors, Elizabeth Wood, Pedro Ebora, tropical fish, Verde Island
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