Design & Innovation, Entrepreneurship

Best Alternatives to Wild Freshwater Aquarium Fish


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Freshwater species make up 85% of all traded ornamental fish. Shown are farmed angelfish, swordtails, platies, tetras, gouramis and barbs. Unlike marine species, freshwater fish are easy to breed, with billions produced in farms across Asia. Singapore supplies 25% of global trade. The Philippines has yet to enter the arena. (Gregg Yan / Best Alternatives)
Freshwater species make up 85% of all traded ornamental fish. Shown are farmed angelfish, swordtails, platies, tetras, gouramis and barbs. Unlike marine species, freshwater fish are easy to breed, with billions produced in farms across Asia. Singapore supplies 25% of global trade. The Philippines has yet to enter the arena. (Gregg Yan / Best Alternatives)

Fishkeeping. Part art, part science. The world’s most popular hobby after photography.

It comes in many forms – a prized Arowana gliding languidly in the sala, goldfish tormented by a three-year old, jewel-like tetras cruising atop a lavish emerald aquascape. Globally valued at USD15 billion and growing by 14% yearly, the ornamental fish trade is aquaculture’s sunrise industry.

So why isn’t the Philippines farming ornamental fish?

250 Times the Price of Tilapia

Practically all Pinoy fish farms grow food fish like tilapia or bangus.

Among aquaculture’s biggest hurdles is the prohibitive price of commercial feeds, which can be mitigated by farming high-value fish. While tilapia retails for PHP80 per kilo, ornamental fish can be sold for PHP20,000 per kilo. Gram for gram, they eat about the same amount of food.

Due to waning stocks, only 10% of ornamental freshwater fish are wild-caught – 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% 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.

A food fish pond in Mindanao. Whereas a kilo of tilapia sells for PHP80, a kilo of ornamental freshwater fish can be sold for PHP20,000. Most Pinoy fish farms breed and rear tilapia, bangus and other food fish – but fish can be much more than food. (Gregg Yan / Best Alternatives)
An automatic feeder dispenses food to bangus in the Southern Philippines. Whereas a kilo of tilapia sells for PHP80, a kilo of ornamental freshwater fish can be sold for PHP20,000. Most Pinoy fish farms breed and rear tilapia, bangus and other food fish – but fish can be much more than food. (Gregg Yan / Best Alternatives)

Tremendous Profit

“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 PHP100, I’ll earn PHP2500 – equivalent to 31 kilos of tilapia!” shares hobbyist Joey Rosal. Done on a commercial scale and provided that fish are export-grade, profits can clearly be tremendous.

Captive-bred cichlids, originally from the great African Rift Lakes, populate a tank in Pasig City. Yellow Pseudotropheus retail for PHP85, striped Auratus at PHP100. Shares hobbyist Joey Rosal, “Two of my Auratus produced 25 fry three months ago. If I sell them at PHP100 apiece, I’ll earn PHP2500 – equivalent to 31 kilos of tilapia!” (Gregg Yan / Best Alternatives)
Captive-bred cichlids, originally from the great African Rift Lakes, populate a tank in Pasig City. Yellow Pseudotropheus retail for PHP85, striped Auratus at PHP100. (Gregg Yan / Best Alternatives)

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.”

Watching Out for Invasive Species

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.

Janitor Fish by Gregg Yan
Dozens of armored janitorfish (Pterygoplichthys spp.) crowd around a canal discharge in Morong, Rizal. By design or accident, 48 invasive freshwater fish species now inhabit Philippine waterways. Fish farms must prevent the introduction of foreign species. (Gregg Yan / Best Alternatives)

Aquaculture can also leach out nutrients to waterways to spur algal blooms. Particulate or dissolved materials – rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon, fuel planktonic explosions which rob water of oxygen, extinguishing life.

But countries which have done it successfully are reaping the rewards. Malaysia’s trade was valued at PHP620 million in 1995, while Thailand’s exports rake in PHP2.2 billion yearly.

Properly honed, the Philippine ornamental freshwater fish trade can spur rural development and improve Filipino lives. The Best Alternatives Campaign, a movement which promotes sustainable alternatives to dwindling seafood, marine fish and curio products, encourages the responsible development of ornamental fish farms.

Finding Nemo said it best: Fish are friends, not just food.

With strong public and private sector support, the Philippines might finally export world-class fish and enter the global ornamental fish arena – with fins flared, of course.

Questions? Message Gregg Yan on Facebook. Read about the marine fish trade in the fourth edition of Best Alternatives, coming soon!

Best Alternatives CampaignAsian environmentalist Gregg Yan is a proponent of the Best Alternatives Campaign, which aims to help transform the seafood, aquarium, and curio trades by offering more sustainable (and ultimately more profitable) alternatives to endangered seafood, aquarium fish, corals, and sea shells. Logo design by Bates CHI.

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