Pasil Seafood Market, Cebu


The alarm clock was set for the ungodly hour of 2:00 a.m., and it blared for several seconds before it was silenced! Even for Marketman, an early riser, waking at this hour was painful. Did I really want to see the Pasil Fish Market in downtown Cebu, apparently the largest seafood market in the Visayas, that badly? Well, yes actually, I did. And I have wanted to see it for many years. A suitable guide, the father of one of my office colleagues in Cebu, who was a regular shopper and re-seller of fish from Pasil, would be waiting for me in a van, ready to head to the market in just 10 minutes. The office crew were somewhat mortified that I wanted to visit this market at its peak trading hour around 2 a.m., instead of a much less active version during the day. The crew expressed concerns about the seedy neighborhood, the various questionable “characters” hanging around the place, the sanitary conditions, etc. I had survived a trip to the Carbon Market at midnight several years ago, but I had to admit I was a bit apprehensive during that visit, so I wasn’t taking their concerns for granted. Instead, we agreed to hit the market with the guide and 3 guys tagged along to see the sights as well, a couple of them Marketman certified fish buyers… I was happy to have the company, and I would not have felt comfortable there by myself, taking flash photographs, particularly when it came to some of the more exotic, if not contraband fish. I do not recommend an obvious neophyte traipsing through the Pasil market in the wee hours of the morning… Having said that, nothing even remotely untoward occurred in the 45 minutes I spent at the market, though I was clearly a fish out of water and the hundreds of regulars there knew that…


There isn’t much on the internet about the history of the Pasil Fish Market, but this blurb in a St. Theresa’s College website says the term Pasil refers to a location by the shore between two rivers and the name may refer to an area already established prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1500’s. Even a recent coffee table book on Philippine markets barely mentions the Pasil market and has no photos of it…


There are several sections to the market, with the biggest traders located on these square blocks made up of coolers in the middle filed with fish and ice, and display counters around the outer part of the square, and the owners or dealers sit atop the square, screaming prices at buyers and negotiating deals while their assistants and helpers move the fish around and pack it up if purchased. The set-up looked pretty good, but the quality of fish that day was rather disappointing, in my opinion. We were there on a Monday morning, and I suspect the greatest volume of fish must be traded on a Friday or Saturday… Having said that the market was incredibly busy and hundreds of buyers from smaller markets around Cebu were buying the 40-80 kilos that they would then re-sell to consumers later that day. Large traders were negotiating deals for hundreds of kilos worth of fish and I presume these would be hauled onto waiting trucks outside…


The Pasil Market is the main “bagsakan” or dropping off point for fish and seafood in Cebu. It is apparently the largest such market in the Visayas. And it certainly is large and has a tremendous amount of fish on offer. But so much of the fish was NOT fresh. The fish had clearly spent several days on ice and their eyes, gills and quality of the flesh belied their grueling and long trip from distant fishing grounds. There were exceptions, and I am not saying that all of the fish was substandard quality, but the vast majority of fish on offer when I visited wouldn’t end up in my market basket. There is HUGE difference between this wholesale market and a small town market where the fish was caught by line and just hours earlier…


Part of the problem must be in the handling of the catch. First packed in ice, often in large coolers weighing several hundred pounds, then thrown into bigger coolers at the market and smacked around the tile or cement counters. This market is about volume, about protein, about food… not necessarily how fresh it is, how good it looks, how fine it will taste.


There were other sections of the market where fish were offered in plastic pails, several thousand pounds worth of each common variety. Towards the back of the market, even smaller dealers of fish were there with much fresher looking fish (apparently from the Bantayan area and had been caught just a few hours before and transported by jeepney to the Pasil Market) but these were a little bit more expensive as well. I ended up buying some squid and fish for frying in this section.


A lot of the fish on offer were what used to be referred to as second class eating fish like molmol or parrotfish, etc.


Finding a large lapu-lapu, talakitok or tanguigue wasn’t so easy…


We did spot these amazing swordfish or malasugui piled on the floor. Such incredible looking fish in the wild, and superb eating, but these ones had clearly been on ice for at least 2-3 days. I have seen these fish freshly caught, coming off boats in places like the Florida Keys and they are such noble and proud creatures, not so at The Pasil…


And my dour mood got worse when I spotted these young sharks just strewn on the market floor…


…huge rays of all sorts laid across coolers…


…and hundreds of poisonous pufferfish headed for whom? Thrill seeking diners who want to have a brush with death? In Cebu alone, three reported incidents of folks eating these but forgetting to clean them properly, resulted in several deaths among drinking buddies, in the past year. Duh, I can think of a few ways to give them a brush with death without wasting a perfectly nice fish… My photos were blurred, but I was also saddened to see hundreds of large moray eels on offer. I recall a story of my brother, a divemaster then, who had a “pet” moray eel at one of his favorite dive sites and one day another diver came along and killed it with a speargun, I think. Well, let me tell you, if my brother caught up with that guy… :(


These last few photos were from the smaller dealers, and in many cases their fish looked far fresher…


…and displayed with more “dignity” and often on ice…


We spent our money on the freshest squid we could find, sold by much smaller merchants…


…as well as alumahan or other more common fish for frying. Overall, I must say I was amazed by the Pasil Market. It is huge, handles thousands of kilos of fish per day and serves buyers from all around the city of Cebu and nearby towns. However, compared to smaller seaside markets such as those in Bohol, Legaspi, Batangas, Ilocos, Palawan, Davao, etc., it was a disappointing dose of the reality of getting seafood/protein from the sea to millions of consumers in a large metropolitan center… You will see the difference in markets when I do a feature on the seafood from the Bogo and Malapascua area, up soon.


27 Responses

  1. so many people up and working at that time of day seemed like a very exciting place to be.a feast for the senses i bet.

  2. This reminds me of an early morning trip to the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo to see the fish trading going on. My brother and I then had sushi for breakfast.

  3. I enjoyed reading the first part of your post, then got depressed seeing the titan trigger fish, then the swordfish, and nearly cried seeing the sharks and rays. However, what this post says is you’ve got to do a tour of all the local wet markets, whether fish or dry goods or fruit or high end farmers’ markets and do a book on it! Include all the stuff about the local fruits, when they’re ripe and in season, and recipes you’ve made out of the stuff you’ve found with all the input from your sukis. What a legacy that book would be.

  4. YES MM…a book about your finds would be great!!!! I am willing to reserved this early!!!!

  5. What Mila said!!! :-D

    It’s posts like this that make me keep returning to your site, MM. I doubt that I would EVER go to this market, especially at that hour. At least now I know what I’m (not) missing. ;-)

  6. I agree with Mila, I think seeing the sharks,rays and sword fishes are very disturbing. Though most of these are just looked upon as food, they play a very important part in out ecosystem. The indiscriminate fishing in our waters leaves a very dim future for the future generations.

  7. I remember a small fish market in a remote place south of Manila – I will have to ask Dad for the name of the place – where as soon as the catch was unloaded, buyers would go up to the vendor and whisper a bid, – a deal being closed in a matter of seconds.
    Nearby there were huge areas of beach set aside for drying squid – a natural and effective use of free energy.

  8. Hi MM – great article as always. I think your travelogue pieces are fascinating. I have said it before, and can only agree with Mila, Lex and Tricia above, the almost systematic clearing out from the local waters of the rapidly endangered species such as sharks and rays is only just short of tragic. And nothing at all seems to be done about it. Ever. It just seems so senseless.

  9. What an experience! I have never gone to Pasil in all my life and I’m old!!!! Now, thanks to you I know what Pasil looks like and what to expect. Although they say prices are cheaper than Carbon.

    The term Pasil in our place also refers to a small patch of land in between rivers. I was thinking, could it be short of the spanish term pasillo?

  10. I agree with Mila and the rest. If you ever decide to write, you may have to write several: one for fruits/veggies, markets, food finds and whatnot!

    It’s heartbreaking to see rays and sharks displayed like that. Should we even be consuming these creatures at all? Aawww… =(

  11. I know also of a place like this in Metro Manila. I think it’s called fishport, can’t remember if it’s Navotas or Malabon. It’s “bagsakan” of fish from fishpens in Laguna de Bay. Never been there, just hear stories from a friend

  12. thanks for this post,MM..indiscriminate fishing will one day deplete our waters of good fish. it will be like the balding of our hills and mountains..those unsold ones could have been given away to those without…i wonder what happens to the refuse.

    include me in the reservation-list for that book…

  13. i am saddened by your photos of the sharks, rays and puffer fish… i hope whoever caught them get what they deserve… a sting and a barb plus whatever the puffers can do to them!

    …from a scuba diver who is seeing less and less of these creatures in our waters

  14. In Malabon/Navotas, they called it Consignacion. Been there few times, and it’s quite similar to this. Large pails and basins with lots of ice to keep the fish fresh. Anyone going there should be in proper attire, most often you need to wear plastic boots for sanitary purposes.

  15. I read the genteel market prior to reading this entry. Being a diver I was sad to see the black tip sharks there ( these sharks do not attack people they are more like dogs of the sea) then I saw the rays. I would guess they are eagle rays. I dived in Tubbataha and was able to observe 8 of them flying together underwater. I guess this is one the reasons I dont want to go to large fish markets but visiting in a new places draws me to see what the people and culture are like upon visiting their markets.

    thanks for sharing

  16. I am a diver, and it is sad to see that some species not even that good for eating are caught just to have some income, I think we really do overfish, and its really really sad, the fishermen just catch whatever they can, but I know its hard to educate everyone about ecosystem and how it works. . . it’s so sad. . .

  17. @ Irene, Daisy and Wilby: i for one was saddened by the photos of rays, sharks and puffer fish sold. Yet, your perspective comes from a well-filled stomach who has the luxury to dive out in the open sea. To these fishermen, an empty stomach is hard to appease without supplementing from the catch of the day. The question now is, what can you, and I (all of us do) to help these folks find sustainable income and opportunities while maintaining a balance in the local ecosystem?

    Btw, I am not trying to attack you or your views. I totally agree at some level. Yet I think that since you have the luxury of time and resources, how about sparing some of your time for a good cause for humanity as well?

    Peace to all. :)

  18. Joe-e, I agree something should and can be done. In many cases, tourism, and diving one attraction among them is a far bigger industry than the revenues from indiscriminate fishing. Personally, I believe there are many things that can and in some cases ARE already being done, such as:

    1. Increase domestic tourism and foreign tourism… results in huge flow through revenues to the local economy – in construction, services such as hotels, food, boating, guides, etc. But obviously this has to be done responsibly as well.

    2. Using local fishermen in new roles, such as guides to see the whales rather than eating them, or sharks in the case of Malapascua…

    3. Education to make everyone realize that wiping out stocks now only means a harder life for their descendants. Clearly fishermen and owners of large trawlers who practice muro ami fishing, dynamite and cyanide CANNOT believe that what they are doing is justified, even on an empty stomach.

    4. Enforcing bans on the catching and killing of certain species… now that you can’t really travel with specimen shells out of certain provincial airports with xrays, there has been a dramatic slowdown in the sale and hopefully harvesting and sale of such shells.

    5. Consumers can and should stop EATING foods such as sharksfin soup, bird’s nest, rays, sharkmeat, etc. so that they lose their economic appeal to those that catch them.

    6. Mangrove areas and other spawning grounds need to be expanded and artificial reefs and such also need to be encouraged to help replenish the depleted stocks of fish, etc.

    And frankly, in my personal opinion, everyone should just get a grip and choose to have less kids… in the recent censuses, those with adequate means are hovering around two kids on average, while those with very limited income still have an average of 6-7 kids… so if one does the math… you see the results. Yes, everyone has a responsibility to do something about it, but it isn’t just a have vs. have not issue, but rather one of personal acountability to one’s surroundings and environment… I agree it is every individual’s right to have as many kids as they please, yet I believe it is an even MORE IMPORTANT RIGHT that kids SHOULD EXPECT AND DEMAND to grow up with adequate nutrition, shelter, education, etc. from BIRTH until they are of age… otherwise one shouldn’t have them. Today, there are approximately 89 million filipinos, just 12 years ago there were roughly 69 million, and when Marcos was kicked out in 1986, some 55 million, and when he took office for the first time in the late 1960’s, there were probably less than 36 million. So you can just imagine how much more food is required from the same amount of land and sea. And population is growth is completely self-determined. No wonder there is such a strong conflict between man and food sources. Here is a link to historical Philippine population numbers.

  19. MM
    He, he, the way you carry the “bukag” on your head is as awkward as when you climb the coconut in bicol.

  20. anyone who can help me to find a supplier of alimasag? please call 029103393 or +639183279951

  21. any interested raw fish buyer? Make sure you can buy at least 70-100kg or more variety of expensive fish like kurapu, etc on a daily basis.these are healthy fishes since our fishermen are not allowed to use illegal fishing like dynamite and cynide. We know these things would destroy coral reefs and other sea lives including ourselves. if you think you are interested, please contact my email address so we could make prior arrangment.

    thanks and more power!

  22. Good day!
    Can you give me a direct buyer of Lambay?
    You can contact men at my number 032 3454920. Thanks and more power and God bless

  23. MM, next time you find malasugui like the ones in the pic, get the fins. they’ll give you a big chunk of the fins together with the cartilage under it. it is verrrry good charcoal-grilled with just salt for seasoning. the meat between the fins and the cartilage and skin in between are usually very fatty and are a different taste experience by themselves. “silik ng malasugui” (malasugui fins) are a well-kept and sought-after delicacy among those who know here in davao.

  24. there are still plenty of fresh fish in pasil market. its just a matter of of finding the right vendor. fortunately for me i know a lot of people in the area. i grow up just a block north of the market. whenever im on vacation i never fail to stop at the market. hell i even took my friends from the states to the market. one thing for sure you cannot buy this kind of fishes in the united states if you could it will cost you a ton of money. thanks for the pics it brings back memories.

  25. I am a frequent visitor from Puerto Rico to Pasil where my family lives. It is a great fun place with it’s own Santo Ninyo parade and Sinolog dancers. My father in law the famous Felix Robin raised a good family there as a fish dealer most of his life. My greetings to my best friends and family, the happy, kind, generous, fun and great people of Pasil



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