Friends, not food: Examining the potential of ornamental fish breeding

A locally bred goldfish. (Jeffrey Lim)

Will the Philippines be able to export aquarium fishes?

That’s something the Fisheries Research and Development Institute (NFRDI) is trying to explore.

The NFRDI is the fisheries research agency under the Department of Agriculture (DA). It conducts research and development on fisheries and aquaculture to address the needs of the fisherfolk and the fisherfolk industry.

While the DA’s main focus is on food, its mandate also encompasses ornamental plants, and in this case, ornamental fish, which are fishes and aquatic creatures kept as pets.

Pet fish

“…the trade on aquarium fish is a steadily increasing industry in the world… but since [the 80s, when the hobby gained popularity] up to the present, the local industry has still not yet tapped the export market… even the local markets are not yet that fully developed,” says Frederick Muyot NFRDI Senior Science Specialist. “If we look at the quality of fish that we have, it’s not at par with the export quality fishes that we are seeing from our local pet shops.”

The ornamental fish industry is divided into marine or seawater ornamentals and freshwater ornamentals. According to Muyot, marine ornamentals are “gathered from the wild and exported to other countries.” On the other hand, there is a small number of hobbyists who breed freshwater ornamentals, “but all of these are exotic or not native to the Philippines” and are bred to supply local demand. These include discus, goldfish, koi, and guppies, among others.

“We’ve not yet tapped the export market due to some constraints,” he concludes. “…some of our aquarium fish farmers have tried [exporting ornamental fish to the US] through the initiative and support of BFAR 4A and quality-wise, we have passed the requirements of the exporter but the volume of production that they require could not be met by the local industry. That’s one of the points that we need to address for us to be able to go into the export market.”

A locally bred goldfish. (Jeffrey Lim)

A potential for export

Muyot estimates that the local ornamental fish industry is worth about 140-150 million pesos, a conservative estimate since it’s based on 500 pet shops around the country and doesn’t count private breeders and hobbyists. Internationally, the industry is worth around five billion US dollars, and is estimated to grow around eight per cent annually. This means there’s room for new players, especially if they can deliver the required quality and quantity of fish breeds.

Breeding ornamental fish can be a lucrative business, as these tend to be priced higher than food fish. Tilapia, for example, has a farmgate price of 80-90 pesos per kilo, but even a small, relatively cheap ornamental fish will go for 10 to 20 pesos a piece, and can go up to hundreds, even thousands of pesos per piece depending on its breed, size, and quality. Ornamental fish also don’t need as big an area for breeding as food fish. Muyot explains that a three hectare facility is already considered large. “Compared to tilapia and bangus, you need 10 hectares or 20 hectares to produce the same value of harvest,” he adds. ”We have great potential for the ornamental fish for the local market and eventually, if you are already established enough and you have the capacity, volume, quality, you can go into the export market… [which] is very lucrative because the industry is steadily increasing, the market demand is very high, and the price of fish per piece is also very high.”

Local hobbyists regularly breed high quality aquarium fish such as discus. (Jeffrey Lim)

The need for high quality

Unfortunately, apart from not being able to supply the required quantity, a lot of potential fish farmers who aren’t hobbyists to begin with may not understand the need to breed fish that pass quality standards if they are to be exported. “…most farmers would tend to pay more attention to volume of production instead of quality,” Muyot admits. “In other countries, they are more concerned about the quality first… but locally, this is not the case.”

He does, however, cite a case in Davao where he was surprised to find export quality fish in a pet shop, and was told that the reason they were of good quality was because they were bred by a hobbyist. “ The hobbyist sector, they have the highest quality breeders selection. They produce the highest quality fish, but they produce at a smaller amount,” he shares.

It’s not that breeders who aren’t hobbyists don’t care about quality, it’s more a case of having to choose between one or the other because of a lack of resources and institutional support. “…most of the pet shops we have around the country cater to the masses. “In other countries, they are more of a middle class group that demands higher quality fish,” he explains in Taglish. “…we asked [some farmers in Laguna] why they don’t do selective breeding… before they sell the fish, [and] they told us that the selling price of… the sorted and unsorted ones are not that significant…, so they try to go for the mass production process.”

But Muyot stresses that if one wants to become a reputable name in the industry, one cannot forego quality. “…for you to be known and to be a reputable farmer, you have to produce good quality fish. Otherwise, there will come a time that other people will surpass you.”

Koi is one of the popular ornamental fishes that hobbyists are breeding locally. (Jeffrey Lim)

A budding industry in need of support

The DA has always placed importance on food crops and livestock over ornamental plants and animals. While this is important for the welfare of the nation’s food security, it means that non-food industries get left behind. This need not be the case, as there’s room for everyone to grow. “Ornamental fish is not one of the main priority species for the government. I think the industry should be given… support in terms of different programs,” Muyot says. “For example, the lack of… quality breeders in the industry should be addressed through breeding programs… and training and capacity building for aquarium fish farmers… They don’t have entrepreneurship skills.”

He added that other countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have specific departments dedicated to the ornamental fish industry, especially raising and marketing these require skills different from raising fish for food, including keeping an eye on the ever-evolving ornamental fish market.

The NFDI and BFAR have programs that promote ornamental fish breeding as a form of livelihood for backyard breeders. “Our ultimate vision is to develop the local market for us to have a dynamic, thriving local ornamental fish industry that is competitive enough to eventually go into the export market.”

There may be a focus on food fish in the agriculture industry, a necessity given the country’s lack of food security, but it doesn’t mean that ornamental fish growers have to languish. There’s room for everyone to grow, and the success of one industry will mean success for the Philippine economy as a whole.

Photos by Jeffrey Lim

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Yvette Tan
Yvette Tan is Agriculture magazine's managing editor’s web editor. She is an award-winning writer who likes to eat, travel, and listen to stories about the strange and supernatural. She is dedicated to encouraging people to push for sustainable food sources and is an advocate of food security, food sovereignty, and the preservation of community foodways.

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