Captured, cultivated, dosed with “sleeping medicine”, then contained in a Styrofoam box bound for China – such is life for the lapu lapu.
That’s the local term for the striking reef fish in the Palawan region of the Philippines.
Boy Batirzal has been capturing lapu lapu for 25 years. On a normal trip, the Coron Island fisherman will bring home three reef fish, which can fetch up to 9000 pesos (roughly $237).
There are three types of lapu lapu that Mr Batirzal could catch. The rarest of these is the Senorita fish.
“Normally the lowest will be [worth] 1500 pesos ($39)”, he says. “The highest would be 3000 ($79).”
However, it’s fiddly work.
“When I pull them in, I have a technique where I slowly pull up the line. If I push it upwards faster, the fish will be bloated like a balloon and the fish will die.”
This technique is known as “hook and line” and used to be one of three ways to capture live fish in the Philippines.
Another method, capture by cyanide, was banned in 2010 due to environmental damage to the coral reefs. Cage fishing, which involves using a bamboo structure, is also banned.
“Now, because of the regulations that have been made, it’s more difficult to get the fish.”
After the lapu lapu have been captured, they are sold to one of the 14 fish traders located in Palawan.
Mark Joseph is one of them. He owns an aquarium in Coron which consists of three large tanks. A pump circulates the water in each one, simulating an ocean current.
From there the fish are packed in plastic bags, which are boxed up and shipped off to Manila.
“We put [them] in this tank because we need to make the fish more energetic, [to have] more power,” Mr Joseph says.
“Once they are put in the box… we put in a small amount of medicine to make them sleep.”
In Manila, the fish will be purchased by international buyers. The greatest interest comes from China, where the lapu lapu is considered a cultural delicacy.
They can also fetch a higher price during cultural celebrations such as Chinese New Year.
Australia also exports the lapu lapu, but the weather in Palawan is particularly suited to the industry.
“In our country, we have the rainy season and the sunny season. In other countries, it gets cold. This affects the taste of the fish,” Mr Joseph says.
The Philippines is still attempting to reconcile sustainable practices with live fishing.
The lapu lapu is slow to grow and reproduce, leaving it vulnerable to overfishing. Some Philippine islands have been slow to recover from the overfishing of previous decades and enforcement is difficult, so illegal fishing is still an issue.
A spokesperson for the Council for Sustainable Development, who did want to be named, said the regulations have been more successful in Palawan: “… because we have effective enforce[ment]”.
– Hannah Taylor @hannah_taylor1
*The author travelled to the Philippines as part of The Foreign Correspondent Study Tour, a University of Technology Sydney (UTS) programme supported by the New Colombo Plan (NCP) mobility grants.