Philippines’ Export of Marine Ornamental Fishes – A Boon to the Economy but a Threat to Biodiversity

The Philippines began exporting marine ornamental fishes around the decade of the 1950s and ever since has been one of the major countries supplying marine wild-caught fish around the globe along with countries such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Though having to export marine fishes for a very long time, the Philippines only started generating data for the export of marine ornamental fishes starting only in 1991 [1].

Philippines’ Top Exported Aquatic Commodities in 2016. Source: Philippine Fisheries Profile 2016. Department of Agriculture – Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.

In the 2016 data which is the latest data provided by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), ‘ornamental fishes’ collectively is the sixth top exported aquatic commodity in the country in terms of volume and is valued to nearly six (6) million U.S. Dollars. But in terms of export value, ‘ornamental fishes’ places ninth in the country accounting only to 0.63 percent of the total revenue in the export industry [2]. Despite the high demand and high export volume of ornamental fishes in the country, it seems that the commodity has considerably low value compared to other commodities. And this value has remained virtually static as presented by the trend graph showing the country’s yearly revenue from the export of marine ornamental fishes.

value trend
Philippines’ Ten-Year Revenue Trend for the Exportation of Marine Ornamental Fishes
Source: Philippine Fisheries Profile 2006-2016. Department of Agriculture – Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
volume trend
Philippines’ Ten-Year Volume Trend for the Exportation of Marine Ornamental Fishes
Source: Philippine Fisheries Profile 2006-2016. Department of Agriculture – Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.

Based on the data for the past 10 years or so, the volume of exported marine ornamental fishes from the Philippines seems to be fairly constant every year ranging only between 5000 to 7000 metric tons (MT). But in an unpublished presentation of BFAR, the export has increased in 2017 totaling to more than one million pieces of marine ornamental fishes exported to different countries and with an export value of more than eight (8) million U.S, dollars. In the 2008 – 2011 data of the United States, the Philippines has exported a total of 12,732,212 marine ornamental fishes with an average of more than three (3) million fishes per year [11].

In the Philippines, there are more than thirty (30) facilities engaged in the exportation of marine ornamental fishes with major source localities in Bataan, Batangas, Bohol, Cebu Davao, Palawan, and Zambales. And according to the sourced 2017 data, the Philippines has exported to twenty-eight (28) countries around the world. The country which the Philippines has gained the highest total export revenue is from Germany while Israel has the highest quantity of export demand from the Philippines [2].

The marine ornamental fish trade in the Philippines and all over the world provides for the livelihood of many people, in the Western industrialized world as well as in the tropical developing countries. But in spite of this, the ornamental fish industry presents some problems to the environment if left unchecked. Among them are:

  • Depletion of aquatic species population. The collection of aquatic organisms from the wild certainly reduces its population. For example in a study conducted by a group of researchers in the Cebu province of the Philippines, it has been observed that the densities of symbiotic giant anemones declined over 80% in the year 2005 due primarily to the collection for international trade [3]. Other similar cases are the removal of stony corals (order Scleractinia) from coral reef ecosystems. Their collection reduces coral cover and alters species composition and population demographics [4].
  • Species extinction. If fishing rate surpasses the population recovery of a certain species, this may lead to population imbalance and eventually to its extinction. This is more apparent for terrestrial organisms and for some large aquatic animals but not so much for small aquatic organisms like marine ornamental fishes. This is because of the lack of researches that should supposedly study and monitor the population health of marine ornamental fishes.
  • Exacerbation of destructive practices for fishing. The most prevalent destructive practice for collecting marine ornamentals fishes is ‘cyanide fishing’. The cyanide chemical is dispensed onto fish habitats in order to anesthetize and easily capture fish [5]. However, non-targeted species like corals, anemones, and other habitat-forming species are also exposed and therefore may lead to their damage or death. In particular, cyanide blocks respiration in corals, causing coral bleaching and mortality [6]. In the Philippines, cyanide fishing dates back in 1962 and became a common practice that at one time around 150 000 kg of cyanide were being used every year [1]. Other prevalent destructive methods for capturing marine ornamental fishes are abrasive nets, spears, and crushing of corals [7].
  • Introduction of exotic and invasive species. The aquatic wildlife trade can also affect importing countries through species invasions. Species richness within a particular area tends to decrease invasion by exotic species [8]. An example in the spread of Lionfish (Pterois volitans and P. miles) along the U.S. east coast and throughout the Caribbean [9]. The predatory fish eats native fishes resulting in reduced recruitment o Atlantic coral reef fishes, competition with native predators such as Groupers, and reduction of grazers like Surgeonfish and Parrotfish [10].
  • Alteration of biota in ecosystems. The changes in components of the Earth’s biodiversity cause concern for ethical and aesthetic reasons, but they also have a strong potential to alter ecosystem properties and the goods and services they provide to humanity [8].

As of the moment, the trade of marine ornamental fishes in the Philippines remains to be operational with little or no management measures and regardless of its negative impact on the environment. This is because the matter is highly unnoticed and there is insufficient data that should determine if present fishing activities are still sustainable or not. Also, the country’s stock status and sustainable harvest levels of most ornamental species are still largely unknown and unmonitored. According to certain reviews, the Philippines conducts limited national-level fisheries management and therefore could be a probable reason for the eventual or current overfishing of marine ornamental species. But then, there are no substantial studies conducted yet proving that marine ornamental species in the Philippines are indeed overfished.



  1. Monticini, P. 2010. The Ornamental Fish Trade. Production and Commerce of Ornamental Fish: Technical-Managerial and Legislative Aspects. Globefish Research Programme, Vol. 102. Rome, FAO 2010.
  2. Quintero, M. 2018. Fisheries Certification Section Report. Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources – Fisheries Inspection and Quarantine Division. Quezon City, Philippines.
  3. Shuman,  C.S., Hodgson, G., & Ambrose, R. 2005. Population Impacts of Collecting Sea Anemones and Anemonefish for the Aquarium Trade in the Philippines. Coral Reefs 24, 5654-573.
  4. Knittweis, L. & Wolff, M. 2010. Live Coral Trade Impacts on the Mushroom Coral Heliofungia actiniformis in Indonesia: Potential Future Management Approaches. Biological Conservation 143, 2722-2729.
  5. Rubec, P.J., Cruz, F., Pratt, V., Oellers, R., McCullough, B., & Lallo, F. 2001. Cyanide-free Net-Caught Fish for the Marine Aquarium Trade. Aquarium Science Conservation 3, 37-51.
  6. Cervino, J.M., Hayes R.L., Honovich, M., Goreau, T.J., Jones, S., & Rubec, P.J. 2003. Changes in Zooxanthelae Density, Morphology, and Mitotic Index in Hermatypic Corals and Anemones Exposed to Cyanide. Mar. Poll. Bull. 46, 573-586.
  7. Gonzales, E. & Savaris, J. 2005. International Seafood Trade: Supporting Sustainable Livelihoods Among Poor Aquatic Resource Users in Asia (EP/R03/014) Output 2 Marine Ornamentals Trade in the Philippines and Options for its Poor Stakeholders. Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management Ltd., Network of Aquaculture Centres in Asia-Pacific (NACA), and the STREAM Initiative.
  8. Hooper, D.U., et. al. 2005. Effects of Biodiversity on Ecosystem Functioning: A Consensus of Current Knowledge. Ecological Society of America. Ecological Monographs, 75(1), 3-35.
  9. Betancur, R.R., Hines, A., Acero, A.P., Orti, G., & Wilbur, A.E. 2011. Reconstructing the Lionfish Invasion: Insights into Greater Caribbean Biogeography. Journal Biogeography 38, 1281-1293.
  10. Albins, M.A. & Hixon, M.A, 2008. Invasive Indo-Pacific Lionfish Pterois volitans reduce recruitment of Atlantic Coral-reef Fishes. Mar. Ecol.-Prog. Ser. 367, 233-238.
  11. Rhyne, A., Tlusty, M., Szczebak, J., & Holmberg, R. 2015. Expanding our Understanding of the Trade in Marine Aquarium Animals. PeerJ 5:e2949; DOI10.7717/peerj.2949

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