University of the Philippines Los Baños

That fish need a boat to survive seems counterintuitive, but Fish Ark Philippines aims to be that life boat for threatened and endangered freshwater fishes

Inspired by the iconic Noah’s ark, this conservation program funded by the Department of Science and Technology aims to ensure that there will be enough number of species for repopulation.

This inspiration is backed by a strategy that combines research, captive breeding, and local education as a model for conservation.

The program arose from the personal crusade of Ivan Dibble, an English hobbyist, who founded Fish Ark Mexico to help save Mexico’s endemic goodeids.

A photoguide for dimunitive species

Fish Base, a database on fishes, lists more than 200 species of freshwater fishes in the Philippines, of which at least 65 are considered endemic.

Two world-renowned endemic species, the “sinarapan” and “tawilis”, are relatively well studied. But for many other species, information is scant. In particular, little is known about the dimunitive species, those no larger than 50- 100 mm.

Dr. Pablo P. Ocampo, station head of the UPLB Limnological Research Station and program leader of Fish Ark, said that many unique and colorful species such as gobies, half beaks, and pipefishes have remained unexplored for their socio-cultural and ecotourism values because they are normally found in remote habitats.

These small, rare, and undocumented species are now described in a photoguide published by the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB). The publication features 72 fish species with their taxonomy, common and local name, morphology, habitat, economic importance, and distribution.

The guidebook is the product of a three-year survey of native fish species in crater lakes, mountain streams, and waterfalls within Southern Luzon. The survey sites included rivers and streams in the Mt. Makiling Forest Reserve, Mt. Banahaw Protected Landscape, Mt. Asog Malinao-Masaraga Mountain Range, Bulusan Volcano National Park, and the tributaries of Taal Lak.

The UPLB team looked into the composition, distribution, and diversity of native fish species from 28 study sites. From this survey emerged a fascinating collection of glass fishes, perchlets, cardinal fishes, silversides, blennies, sleeper, minnows, halfbeaks, pipefishes, and gobies, among other species. The survey showed the diversity of freshwater fishes that local communities have remained unaware of.

To raise awareness and appreciation of these indigenous resources, the team prepared banners, posters, pocket photo guides, and other educational materials for the local communities.

Voucher specimens of some of the collections were also deposited in the ichthyological collection of the UPLB Limnological Research Station and Museum of Natural History.­

A headstart for conservation through captive breeding

For at least two species from the collection, the program has bred hope through breakthroughs in developing captive breeding techniques. Aided by hormones, good artificial feeds coupled with live food organisms, tanks with flow through systems and observations of fish behavior, UPLB has succeeded in the induced spawning and larval rearing of the silver therapon or “ayungin”.

Another species, the white goby “biyang puti”, has also proved adaptable to captive breeding under semi-natural conditions provided that larval diets are available. For both species, the breakthroughs are backed by extensive research on various aspects of the species’ biology.

While some of these studies date back to the 1930s, there have been minimal attempt to culture ayungin and biya for commercial production. Today, these fishes command twice the price of milkfish or tilapia. The Fish Ark Program was supported by genetic studies using microsatellite markers and cytological studies to determine the genetic make-up of some of the more important species.

With this headstart, the team recommends more research on the captive breeding of other goby species. They are optimistic that the techniques developed can eventually be used to help repopulate the dwindling population of these indigenous species.

Along with Dr. Ocampo, the UPLB team was headed Dr. Vachel Gay Paller, Dr. Roberto Reyes, and Dr. Geena Diaz. (Reprinted from an article of the same title in http://www.pcaarrd.dost.gov.ph/)