Fishkeeping—part art, part science—is now the world’s most popular hobby after photography.
Globally valued at $15 billion and growing by 14 percent yearly, the ornamental fish trade is aquaculture’s sunrise industry.
So why isn’t the Philippines farming ornamental fish?
While tilapia retails for P80 per kilo, ornamental fish can be sold for as much as P20,000 per kilo.
Gram for gram, they eat about the same amount of food.
Due to waning stocks, only 10 percent of ornamental freshwater fish are caught in the wild—bold cichlids from the Great African Rift Lakes, striped angelfish from peat-filled Amazonia, and so on.
The rest are bred by the billions in ponds, pools and tanks. Two-thirds come from Asia, with Singapore supplying 25 percent of global demand.
The Philippines—a country blessed with vast freshwater resources, a tropical climate, talented labor, plus relatively serviceable air and seaports—is lagging behind its Asian neighbors. Though it exports wild marine fish, it doesn’t export ornamental freshwater fish due to erratic production.
Hopefully, this will change soon.
“There’s incredible potential for the Philippines to become a leading ornamental fish exporter. Our climate is perfect because we don’t have snow or extreme cold weather. Fish can breed all year round,” explains Aqua Design Amano president Justin Uy.
“Our expertise at raising tilapia or bangus can be applied to breed tropical fish. This will reap larger profits for our hardworking farmers.”
Whereas the investment and risk for traditional aquaculture is sizeable, breeding and rearing ornamental freshwater fish like guppies, goldfish and koi can be done either on a commercial scale or as a cottage industry.
Minimal investments like small ponds or aquaria make it ideal for households looking to augment income.
“Two of my Auratus (a small cichlid similar to tilapia) produced 25 fry three months ago. If I sell all of them at P100, I’ll earn P2,500—equivalent to 31 kilos of tilapia,” says hobbyist Joey Rosal.
Done on a commercial scale, and provided that fish are export-grade, profits can clearly be tremendous.
The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) is promoting ornamental fish farms, providing free brood-stock, feeds and training for interested farmers.
“We’re paving the way for this relatively new industry,” says BFAR Region 4A Center Chief Lea Villanueva. “If other Asian nations can do it, so can the Philippines.”
But ornamental fish farming must be done very carefully, owing to the risk of farming foreign species.
Almost 50 invasive fish species now inhabit Philippine waterways. Armored janitor fish were introduced by well-meaning aquarists. Voracious knifefish now prey on Laguna Lake’s indigenous species. Guppies imported a century ago to combat malaria are now omnipresent.
Invasive fish can overpower native species, so special care must be taken to ensure foreign populations never take hold.
Aquaculture can also leach out nutrients in waterways to spur algal blooms. Particulate or dissolved materials—rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon—fuel planktonic explosions that rob water of oxygen, extinguishing life.
But countries that have done it successfully are reaping the rewards. Malaysia’s trade was valued at P620 million in 1995, while Thailand’s exports rake in P2.2 billion yearly.
Properly honed, the Philippine ornamental freshwater fish trade can spur rural development and improve Filipino lives.
The Best Alternatives Campaign, a movement that promotes sustainable alternatives to dwindling seafood, marine fish and curio products, encourages the responsible development of ornamental fish farms.
With strong public and private sector support, the Philippines might finally export world-class fish and enter the global ornamental fish arena.