01 Apr2007


After a half-day of sightseeing at Kayangan Lake and the Twin Lagoons, my thoughts inevitably returned to food, or at least ingredients. In one of the spectacular, well-sheltered, azure blue coves along the route, we spotted what appeared to be a couple of floating bahay coral2kubos (thatched cottages). Turns out these were “holding pens” or “hotels” for live lapu-lapu. Talk about having a great location to just hang out… It seems this area of Palawan does a substantial business in the export of live grouper; ideally, the fish are caught by hook and line and the hooks are gently extracted from their mouths and the fish carefully transported to the holding pens. Unfortunately, the dark side of the business suggests some cyanide poisoning may also be in use and the fish are then kept in the pens until they recover from what is hopefully a mild case of “poisoning”… I totally and utterly disagree with the practice of cyanide fishing and I think anything who is guilty of it should be made to drink a gallon of pure cyanide as his/her punishment. At any rate, I asked, and we were allowed to land at one of the floating aquariums which are guarded around the clock by tough watchmen and their yappy dogs. In four large pens that went down perhaps five meters deep were hundreds of lapu-lapu (groupers) ranging from 600 grams to about 1300 grams. I tried to get a photo of them but was unsuccessful; instead, you have to imagine a solidish moving mass of fish at the bottom of each net. The pens or cages were shaded with some coconut branches to ensure they didn’t heat up too much. I figured each pen could easily house a small car’s worth of fish…

At PHP1,500 a kilo for fish that are almost exactly a kilo in size, this is 7-8x the price of other types of lapu-lapu in the market. It is a stunning jackpot for local fishermen if coral3they can get their hands on a few of these fish that are absolutely adored by Chinese diners in Hong Kong and Taiwan; and for some reason, they must be almost exactly a kilo in size. I want to know which dude decided that was the size and the fish that would command 7x the price of say a black lapu-lapu. I wonder if the same buyer could tell the difference if blindfolded. Is the flesh really sweeter, softer, tastier enough to justify the huge increase in price? Of course, it isn’t just any old lapu-lapu, it must be what is referred to as a Seniorita lapu-lapu which is a pale red or orange red. If the Bureau of fisheries data is correct, an estimated 7 million kilos of live lapu-lapu is exported annually from the Phillipines and if you do the math at PHP1,500 a kilo, that is PHP10 Billion peso industry… yikes! Once the fish are ready to travel (fish passports obtained)…they make a trip to Coron “holding tanks,” get “conditioned” and fly out by chartered flights to Manila then Hong Kong, Taiwan and beyond. In the days ahead, I will write a post on the actual fish sent out…



  1. linda says:

    Lapu-lapu is my most favourite fish and reading this makes me want to fly there and pigout on this very special fish. It’s sad though that they have to use cyanide and we don’t understand what it’s for. Interesting read though!

    Apr 1, 2007 | 2:59 pm

  2. Marketman says:

    linda, the cyanide is used to “stun” the fish while it is in the water, allowing the captors to catch it whole and alive, albeit poisoned.

    Apr 1, 2007 | 3:20 pm

  3. tei says:

    Hi MM, do u have a superb “steamed lapu-lapu” recipe i can try?

    Apr 1, 2007 | 5:55 pm

  4. Marketman says:

    tei, I could have sworn that I did a post on one, but I can’t find it so maybe I haven’t. However, if you go to this post on lapu-lapu, the comments section is filled with suggestions. In our house, we just steam it with scallions, ginger, soy sauce, salt and pepper and last minute some sesame oil. It comes out good, but it isn’t spectacular… will have to look for some lapu-lapu to test recipes on…

    Apr 1, 2007 | 6:19 pm

  5. Erlinda says:

    The photographs are great. But this “cyanide poisoning” bothers me. Maybe some sort of negative publicity will help curtail the practice. I wonder if the customers know. Has there been any report of somebody dying from eating “cyanide-tainted” lapulapu? Here in the west, there’s been a huge recall of pet food because of plastic and rat poison contamination. It turns out that even a teeny weeny bit of contamination can kill
    a number of pets. Will any of the cyanide from the lapulapu easily wash off with water? I ask because I know that even just a minute quantity of this poison can and will quickly kill humans. Quite awhile back, a classmate of mine in a chemistry course committed suicide by taking sodium cyanide.

    Apr 1, 2007 | 7:15 pm

  6. honey says:

    the red lapu-lapu costs more than the black one? but somebody told me that the black lapu-lapu tastes better.as for me, i can’t tell the difference

    Apr 1, 2007 | 10:04 pm

  7. Marketman says:

    honey, wait until you see what kind of red lapu-lapu these are…they aren’t the standard ones we see in the market…I was surprised as well…

    Apr 1, 2007 | 10:58 pm

  8. tulip says:

    Use of cyanide in fishing in fish pens are quite common. The most sensitive to cyanide are these sea creatures but different amount of cyanide gives different effects. Smallest amount are used to just calm them for immobility,or halt the growth and doesn’t/won’t kill them. A higher dose will kill. It is all in the concentration:amount of water to cyanide. In humans,small amount of cyanide thru the fish will have no ill effects because our bodies have its mechanism to get rid of it.In fact, EVERY HUMAN produce cyanide naturally and as a by product thru exhalation, it becomes toxic…like a bad breath(but not necessarily!). Isn’t bad breath powerful?? Maybe a better way, people should just exhale/blow some air to the fish for them to calm! Anyway, it is natural no? hehehe. I’m anti-use of any chemicals,actually an environmentalist.

    Apr 2, 2007 | 12:02 am

  9. Erlinda says:

    Yulip: How do humans produce cyanide naturally? It’s been awhile since I took a biochemistry course at university, but I don’t remember human beings producing cyanide. I am talking _about the cyanide ion usually shown as CN as, I believe, it is only in this form that any cyanide compound can be conidered deadly poisonous.

    Incidentally, I am not sure that this kind of cyanide poisoning for the purpose of “stunning” fish is common. I know that it is common in the Philippines and in fact, it is one of the criticsms I’ve read about our country. But I’ve never heard about this in the west. I’m not sure about other asian countries. But so far, it is only in the Philippines where it is most common.

    I sure would like to know what kind of cyanide is used in this kind of fishing. As I said above, one omy classmates killed himself by using sodium cyanide. All he did was to dip his thumb into one of the cyanide bottles in the lab, and then just touched his tongue lightly with his thumb.

    I certainly would not eat fish that may be contaminated with cyanide. As I said, a minute quantity of sodium cyanide will kill you.

    Apr 2, 2007 | 4:04 am

  10. tulip says:

    Erlinda, I am talking about cyanide use, common locally, that is known publicly. To discuss lengthily how it all works and form will take too much space of these food blog, I do not wish to do, but just to make it clear…. Humans produce cyanide in free form(meaning NOT YET poisonous) and as it is EXPELLED OUT (with CO2)of the body thru exhalation, it is considered toxic, that is why I compared it to having bad breath. I took a Science major focusing Microbio and Botany, with Biochem. Though I haven’t done scientific research for the past 3 years,and haven’t also been actively conducting any more symposiums for public awareness(for free),this is what I still remember amd I am an environmentalist since HS.

    As for toxicity in humans, it will need to be concentrated in water in greater amount to kill you. Your friend died because he took it in pure form. If you are aware of ppm or microgram measurement, there is no doubt that an individual may die. But in minute amounts(talking about/considering thru cyanide fishing), humans have a specialized body mechanism to expel/combat very little amount of cyanide thus there is no every minute case of cyanide poisoning in the Philippines. Fish pen owners practicing cyanide use in their business are quite deceiving, because they use the minimum requirement(considering how big the body of water to the concentration with cyanide) to calm the fish and not kill them and have no visible ill effects in humans. So how will the public even know that the fish from the markets are chemically groggy?

    And this method is also used in foreign countries(with also minimum amount), people aren’t aware of such. If they don’t use cyanide, they use other forms(still considerably unhuman or should that be un-living organism). Culturing fish takes quite scientific/chemical compromise to which the public actually isn’t aware of probable processes every commodity (not just fish) goes through.If you think this is not used in foreign countries, Philippines exports to neighboring countries and it also exports to the US, of course before they ever consider importing from here, they have to conduct tests/measures.

    Don’t you wish there will be more public awareness programs, conventions to explain all these here in Manila? I did, and I tried to worked it out but it is financially draining when you use your own resources and you do it also for free and there are lots of politicking too.

    Pardon me Marketman if I took such space for this.

    Apr 2, 2007 | 1:38 pm

  11. Dodi says:

    I know of a Pinoy scientist who developed a technique which makes live fish (particularly tropical fish for aquariums) go to “sleep” for their flight and are made to “wake up” upon reaching their destination. I wonder if lapu-lapu ranchers can do it for their fish?

    Apr 2, 2007 | 4:50 pm

  12. Erlinda says:

    Thank you very much Tulip for all the info. I really appreciate your post. If you have a chance, please post a reference concerning the production of free cyanide by humans as I really would like to read about it just to review what I had learned before. I am not still not quite convinced that cyanide in the human body can exist in “free form”. I presume that by free form you mean in the form of cyanide as in sodium and potassuim cyanide? Because in most other combined forms, cyanide may not be poisonous.

    I realize that the cyanide used in fishing would be very diluted once ingested by the fish. But the fish can ingest the poison, and if it dies, it won’t be able to metabolize the poison. Therefore, the poison could be concentrated in the liver, stomach, and perhaps the “brain” of the fish. Anyone eating this kind of contaminated fish would be subject to a health hazard which could lead to serious consequences. The poison may not be as pure as the one available in the lab, but if it wasn’t metabolized, it could exist in the same form as when it was squirted in the water; i.e., poisonous. So anyone who suffers from nausea, dizziness, headches and diarrhea after eating fish should really see a doctor immediately.

    I don’t think there are many research studies concerning the immediate or long term effects of such kind of exposure in humans. If you know of some, please post references.

    I thought cyanide fishing has been outlawed in the Philippines. If so, then what is happening in Palawan is another example of the authorities just keeping their eyes closed in exchange for some consideration.

    Of course, I understand that because of poverty in such coastal places, people resort to such methods. Once again, the government has to offer the people a viable alternative in order to survive, such as a subsidy if they go back to net/line fishing.

    When I say that I have not heard of this kind of fishing in the West, I mean that the fish sold in the stores have not been caught by this cyanide method(in other third world-asian countries, it is probably practiced a lot too). The monitoring process in the West is pretty rigorous. There will always be someone who will publicize such kind of unacceptable practices. People are so health conscious here that fish caught in the wild, such as salmon, cost much more than fish that have been raised in fish farms.

    You are absolutely correct when you say that public awareness is the key, and I admire you a lot for what you are doing to increase this awareness. But my I suggest that perhaps your attention should also include the media (radio and TV) because if there is a constant dissemination of information from them, the fishermen and the middlemen may eventually be forced t0 change. Where I currently live, because of media publicity, people just refused to buy milk produced from cows that have been injected with hormones(to increase milk production). Guess what? well, the milk now on sale is free from hormones. Nowadays, the main concern is “antibiotics”.

    I wish you success in your efforts. Please don’t give up. The long term consequences of such fishing methods are so dire and negative for our country. And we have not even touched about the effects of such cyanide fishing on coral reefs!

    Thanks for your patience and understanding, Marketman, for allowing me to carry on this dicussion in your blog. But to me who’s trying very hard to live “green”, this struck quite a chord. “Poisonous fishing” means poisoned fish, poisoned water, and eventually, “no fish”.

    To Dodi: When you have time, please post any reference re: this pinoy scientist who can put fish to sleep. Thanks very much.

    Apr 2, 2007 | 10:45 pm

  13. tulip says:

    Erlinda, free form in chemistry meaning pure CN. Toxic cyanide form is a derivative of hydrogen cyanide that is the most common example is sodium cyanide.

    To be honest Erlinda, I have stopped these sorts of projects/symposiums though I still do very limited engagements when I can’t say no. In time, I will be back to the groove. There are few Filipino scientists that are exerting efforts for public awareness. Truth is the government nor private companies do not hire Bio researchers when in like in the US, they have a regional bio researchers/scientists who monitor the living condition of the environment.

    I tried googling up about this matter but only got not so intensive explanations but at least might help you really understand what I have stated. link 1,link 2,link 3,link 4.

    US might not be allowing much use of chemically based “potions” for fishing in their localities but they have demands to import from Asia and the Caribbean where cyanide fishing though illegal is a common practice.That is the reason why fish pen owners have become “wise” in using this practice(very deceiving, just to make the fish calm/groggy in migration).

    Apr 3, 2007 | 3:08 am

  14. Ted says:

    There are other ways to temporarily immobilize fishes, when i was young i’ve seen fishermen use electric current jutting out of two copper wires from motorcycle batteries they lug from their backs. Crude but effective.

    Apr 3, 2007 | 5:36 am

  15. Erlinda says:

    Tulip: Once again, many thanks. I’ve saved the links and will read them this weekend.

    Ted: Ive heard of the “electrical method” you have described. I have never seen it myself. I suspect if the method has “disappeared”, it is because it is not as efficient as “cyanide fishing”. Terrible, huh?

    Marketman: Thanks again.

    Apr 3, 2007 | 11:12 pm


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