The Philippines’ Giant Fish Are Disappearing

Overfishing has almost wiped out 59 reef fish species.
A diver swims with a humphead wrasse. (Photo: Schöning/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
May 26, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The elephants of the ocean are vanishing.

A new study reveals that some of the largest fish that swam in the coral reefs around the Philippines have all but disappeared following decades of unsustainable fishing. That includes iconic and valuable species such as the green bumphead parrotfish, the humphead wrasse, the African pompano, the giant grouper, and the mangrove red snapper.

The authors of the study, published this week in the journal PLOS One, said the disappearance of such big fish is the oceanic equivalent to the declining populations of pandas, elephants, and other large endangered terrestrial species.

The loss of coral fish species has multiple effects. Not only does their disappearance hurt local anglers, but it also puts entire coral ecosystems at risk. Nicholas Polunin, the study’s lead author and a professor of environmental science at Newcastle University in England, said these larger fish play important roles in coral reefs. The bumphead parrotfish, for example, selectively eats some types of coral, which allows multiple coral species to grow and occupy the same habitat. The grouper and the snapper are major predators of smaller fish. Polunin said they help to maintain biodiversity by feeding on common species that might provide too much competition for other fish.

The researchers uncovered details of these species’ disappearance by interviewing 2,655 fishers, many of whom had been active since the 1950s. The surveys revealed that 59 fish species that used to be commonly caught now rarely turn up in nets.

“The interviews were the only way we could collect data going back 60 or so years,” Polunin said. Some information from large-scale fishery operations existed, but that data was limited to a few regions, none of which included coral reefs, and did not drill down to the species level. By surveying fishers directly and tying their recollections of catches to key historic events, such as which Philippine president was in office, the researchers were able to track which species were available during which decades and then identify fish declines through the years.

RELATED: The Solution to the Global Overfishing Crisis Is Around the Corner

Study coauthor Margarita Lavides, of the Haribon Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources in the Philippines, said the fishers’ interviews ranged in tone “from matter-of-fact storytelling to the more emotional concern and sometimes anger regarding the state of fisheries in their villages and the country in general.”

One of the most telling factors revealed during the interviews was that younger fishers did not even know what they were missing. “They thought that what and the amount of catch they get are just normal,” Lavides said. For example, they were “unaware that bumphead parrotfish used to be common catch and used to be found as schooling fish underwater.” The few younger fishers that saw the species reported seeing just one of them at a time.

They were also unaware of the impact this had on their livelihood. The paper points out that the fishers in decades past went out to sea for a few hours at a time and caught much more fish. Today’s younger anglers have to work longer and harder to catch the same or lower amounts of fish. “They thought that it’s normal to fish that long and that far to get a catch, unless that fisher has a fisher father who shares stories about historical catches,” Lavides said.

The authors said the paper reveals a need for immediate governmental action to protect important coral fish species before they disappear.

Meanwhile, developing alternative income streams may help both the fishers and the fish. A related project Lavides is leading is exploring the idea of commercially raising some kinds of fish instead of catching them in the wild. That may help some of these coral communities bounce back while providing human communities with new ways to keep healthy in the long run.