By Tyler Stiem
The tiny island of Hambungon looks like a typical Danajon Bank fishing village. Ramshackle houses spill onto the beach and outrigger boats bob over the blue shallows just beyond. Women mend nets in the bright morning sun.Dogs bark, roosters crow, and kids chase each other across the sand. What sets Hambungon apart from other villages is that it’s home to a thriving — and, unusually, sustainable— trade in aquarium fishes.
This week, the expedition team paid a visit to Hambungon’s barangay captain, or elected chief. “Max,” as he calls himself, runs a small but important community fishery that targets reef fishes and invertebrates for sale to exporters in nearby Cebu City. Unlike many fishers in Danajon Bank, Max’s team of divers only collects species designated as sustainable by the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) of the Philippines.
Max leads us to a covered space. He’s a friendly middle-aged man, quick to make a joke. When he laughs, which is often, his deeply tanned faces wrinkles with amusement. Here, twenty-five or thirty basins are fed by water pipes. Each contains something different. We see anemonefishes, colourful nudibranchs, small jellyfishes, a pair of electric blue mandarinfishes. Max picks out an eel and, gently lifting it out of the water, lets it slither through his fingers back into the basin.
“Moray,” he says. “Juvenile.”
He explains that his divers, a team of village boys aged 15 to about 25, have been trained by MAC to identify and avoid marine species vulnerable to overfishing, and to catch their target species in such away as to avoid serious harm.
Our tour’s piece de resistance is a scorpionfish. The craggy, brown-and-orange-flecked scorpionfish is famous for two things: One, its ability to blend in among corals and on the seabed, and two, its excrutiating venom. Max very carefully ‘milks’ the fish by pressing on its venom duct. A blueish white substance jets out from one of its spiky protrusions. He jumps back.
“You do not want to step on that fish!” he says, laughing.
The divers soon arrive on a pump-boat, carrying their morning catch. Clad in balclavas and long shirts to protect them from jellyfish stings, they look like a clan of soggy ninjas. Their catch buckets brim with silvery baggies filled with fish. The animals are catalogued and dumped into the basins. There are anemone fishes, mystic ras, boxfishes, a lionfish, nudibranchs, a frogfish, another scorpionfish, a long-snout butterflyfish, and more.
The animals will be sold to a distributor in Cebu for anywhere between 10 and 100 pesos, or about $0.25 to $2.50 each. Compared to the retail prices the animals can fetch — a blue mandarinfish that sells for less than a dollar here can eventually be resold in stores for up to US $100 — it doesn’t seem like much. But the sustainable aquarium trade provides an important source of income for the fishers, and, even more importantly, an alternative to other, more destructive kinds of fishing.
Whether the divers always follow the sustainability guidelines is another question. We spot a tiger-tail seahorse, a threatened species according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, in one of the catch buckets. When Luciano points it out, a diver quickly returns the seahorse to the sea. But given how valuable seahorses are — a single animal is worth the equivalent of a kilogram of rice, enough to feed a family for a few days — you can imagine how difficult it would be for fishers to resist temptation now and then.
The following day, expedition photographers Tom Peschak and Luciano Candisani return to Hambungon before dawn to document the divers at work on the reef a few hundred meters beyond the village. It quickly becomes clear why it’s a young man’s game: Aquarium fishing is hard work.
Everyone freedives using only homemade wooden flippers, swimming down as far as seven meters to reach the reef. Small, weighted nets are set near coral heads on the one dive, and on the next, fish are coralled into the mesh. Next, the net is scooped and closed and prized species are transferred into baggies. In between the divers jet to the surface for lungfuls of air.
One diver proudly brandishes his catch for Luciano. You can see the smile in his eyes through his mask. The baggie shines like quicksilver in the sunlight seeping down through the blue water. A large anemone fish squirms inside. The day’s first iconic photo.
After four or five hours, the day’s work is finished, and the aquarium fishers say goodbye. They chug off in their pump boat, destined for home.“Unbelievable,” Luciano says, shaking his head. “Tom and I were swimming with professional gear and we couldn’t keep up with those guys. I’m in good shape, but compared to them, no way.”