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Presented by Charles & Linda Raabe
Mactan Island, The Philippines
© 2008 All Right Reserved

     Having worked for a number of years as the manager of a local fish store on the coast of Mississippi, I was able to see on a regular basis, the condition of all the livestock as it arrived. Ten years ago, it was common for me to see at least a twenty five percent mortality rate upon opening the shipping boxes, which came to be accepted as a normal risk when having to ship fish in from the other side of the planet. Although, I did often wonder just exactly what the new arrivals had been through to get to their final destination within my shop. I had many visions of fish being captured with cyanide and dumped into buckets for the bumpy ride back to shore only to be held in horrendous conditions in the tropical heat and having to endure yet even more horrible conditions during their journey through various exporting / importing warehouses. It was no wonder to me that there were such losses upon their arrival at my shop. In fact, after such thoughts, I was surprised that any of the livestock arrived with a heart beat and any further losses were blamed upon what I thought just had to be careless collection and handling methods.
   During the summer of 2004, with my children grown and gone, I decided to follow my dream and move to the tropics to be near the reefs that enchant me so very much. Since my wife is from the Philippines, it was the logical, and only choice for me to move here. After my first experience of laying face down over the reefs, it soon became a top priority of mine to set up a reef aquarium again. During my twice weekly trips to the reefs to do my own collecting, I often encountered local fish collectors coming back in from their day of catching fish, which they were more than happy to allow me to inspect their catch in the hopes that they could make a sale right on the beach. Having seen the condition of such fish only reinforced my belief in the sad state of the fish collecting business, also on numerous occassions, I have swam past large net bags packed with fish, anchored to the sea floor in two feet of water which the collector did as a means to hold the fish until he was ready to take them in. After a few hours of sitting in such shallow water which can easily reach ninety degrees farenheight, it came as no surprise to me that I would find half of the fish dead as I returned from my own swimming activities. I later learned that the collectors in my neighborhood worked for a company that did not export the fish themselves but sent them to the capital city of Manilla to be held for export by another company. Which of course I had assumed to be a common practice.
   Having seen the collectors walk off with plastic bags chock full of fish, I again began to wonder at the conditions those fish were headed for, yet could not bring myself to go visit their facility since I had assumed it would be a great disappointment. Having put it off for the last two years, since when given the choice to be in the water over the reefs or to go out of my way to visit an exporter, the reefs always won my attention, besides, I was in no hurry to see what I thought would be nothing more than a few filthy concrete tanks packed full of fish struggling to stay alive.  It was only when I promised a friend, who now manages a fish retail store within the United States, that I would check on the fish exportation here was I forced to actually get my face out of the water and go visit an exporter. Had I visited an uncertified collection center, such as the one located in my neighborhood, I am positive that this article would have painted a bleak picture indeed. Thankfully I was soon to find out that there are exporters who not only collect their own stock, but take much greater care in their capture and handling.


                                     The Visayan Island group within the Philippines                   Mactan Island located just offshore of Cebu Island

   Since my friend was looking for a quality and reliable source of marine fish, he had forwarded to me, a list of exporters within the Philippines that are certified by the Marine Aquarium Council. Only one exporting facility located on Mactan Island has gained that certification to my knowledge. A process in which an import / export operation agrees to a set of standards and has its business practices reviewed and certified as having met those standards by an independant certification company. Such certification allows us, as hobbyists and pet owners, the confidence that our pets have been caught and handled in a responsible manner as set forth in the agreed upon standards. In my opinion, any business that has the confidence to voluntarily subject itself to such scrutiny deserves being given consideration, which is why Cebu Mactan Quality Marine Aquarim Fish was chosen for me to visit.
   Upon arrival at Cebu Mactan Quality Marine Aquarium Fish, located sea side in the town of Maribago, I was warmly welcomed by the staff, which was not surprising given that the people of the Philippines are very friendly, and was soon directed towards the owner of the facility. A Mr. Peter Boserio, a native of Australia who had moved his fish exporting business to the Philippines three years ago. After the introductions, he kindly agreed to allow me to wander at will, and left me unescorted while he tended to something in the office that my arrival had interrupted. His only request was that I not put my hands into any of the water. That request was my first clue as to the level of care and concern his newly captive stock receives. I was a bit reluctant to leave the small lounge area since it was lined with aquariums housing a nice variety of fish and had captured my attention. When Peter over heard my comments to my wife about how nice the aquariums were, I may have given the impression that I thought the display tanks were part of the holding system and was informed that they are for display only and were his wife's pets. I did note that the plumbing to each tank was tied into the main water supply which feeds the facilities holding tanks and had the thought that if Peter was keeping his pets in the same system as is his stock, then he must be doing something right. That "something right" was quickly evident as soon as I turned the corner into the main warehouse.

Mandarins kept isolated from each other to prevent aggression and stress

  I was taken aback quite a bit since what I was looking at was nothing that I had imagined a holding facility would be. I immediately became excited and almost forgot the reason I was there, as I was simply amazed at what appeared to be an extremely well kept and thought out system. After a few minutes of looking over the huge selection of fish species, Peter rejoined me and proceeded to give me the guided tour. As we walked the rows upon rows of holding tanks, Peter was more than happy to answer my numerous questions as to how he maintains, what was to me, such a high level of quality care.
  After answering a few of my questions, it quickly became apparent that the key to Peter's success was in his ability to manage the stress levels of the fish, which the entire warehouse was geared towards reducing. Even the lighting is kept subdued as a method to make the fish feel more secure and relaxed, although it did not make for great photography, it was though, yet another small detail that Peter employs to ensure the health of his fish stock.
  I also noted that the majority of the fish species were kept isolated from each other and wondered at why this was done until I realized that a great many of the species do not get along with each other and could cause greater stress levels and wounds if kept in a community setting.

                                                   Individual holding compartments                                            Note the individual containers used to prevent fighting

  As a reef aquarium hobbyist, I was highly interested in how water quality was maintained. Being ocean side, I had assumed that such a facility would employ an open loop system with the ocean. As Peter explained to me, such a system would cause ammonia problems as well as having planktonic life colonizing the system's surface areas and its plumbing which would eventually clog up such a high flow system. With the vast amount of detritus and plankton being brought in with an open loop, the build up and eventual decay of an array of planktonic life forms would quickly pollute the system's water and contribute greatly to the stress levels of the livestock. Something that Peter works very hard at preventing.
  Of course, having hundreds, if not thousands of fish all living within a closed loop system, they themselves will generate enough waste products and require partial water changes. Peter accomplishes this by having a one thousand gallon sump which is emptied once a week and refilled with ocean water. Prior to the ocean water being allowed to circulate through the system, it is cleaned of all particulate and planktonic matter through the use of micron filters and a large bank of ultra violet sterilizers. Only when the water has met with Peter's approval is it allowed to be used. I also noted that heavy aeration is also employed at all times, which is accomplished through the use of air stones and having the individual tank's water source fall through the air into the tank, which not only provides aeration, but cools the water as well.

                                                 The one thousand gallon sump area                                                            The bank of thirty ultra violet units   

   I of course was keenly interested in the appearance of the livestock and spent quite a bit of time looking for any signs of disease or stress. Much to my surprise, it appeared to me that all the fish looked and behaved as if they felt quite at home. All the fish looked healthy and relaxed, and try as I may, I could not find a single dead fish in the system, not even a damaged fin could be seen. I would have gladly purchased any one of the thousands of fish being kept. Believe me, it was a hard temptation to resist and not go home with a bag full of fish myself. I had also assumed that any fish that were unable to be sold or shipped immediately were kept until an order came in for that particular species. Peter assured me that if any fish are unable to be moved within a reasonable amount of time, they are then released back into the ocean, and not just any part of the ocean. A very nearby ocean front hotel has a large area of the reef in front of the hotel roped off and does not allow fishing or collecting to be done in that area as a means to ensure their guests always have a pristine reef populated with alot of fish to enjoy as they snorkel or scuba dive. It is within that protected area that all of the fish Peter returns to the ocean are put. Again,  all this is done as a means to reduce stress and fish losses. Right after my visit to the facility, I enjoyed a short swim and followed Peter's recommendation that I swim around the point and see for myself the roped off area he had mentioned. I did so, and was again a bit surprised to see the difference between the protected area and the not protected area. The reef structure and life within the protected area was vastly greater than outside of the protected area. There are no nets to keep the fish within that zone, yet by noting the population densitys between the two areas, it was as if there was a visible line that the fish knew not to cross. I attribute that to the reef structures being in much better condition thus providing a much better environment that the fish would prefer.

Roped off area that most resorts use to create a protected area for their guests.

    Once I had been shown around and given a chance to get over my initial excitement of being in a room filled with hundreds of species of fish, my conversation with Peter turned towards the supply chain the livestock must go through to reach the hobbyist. I told Peter that I was very relieved to see that my preconceived notions of an export facility had turned out to be wrong. Again, Peter emphasized to me the importance of keeping stress to an absolute minimum, something we as hobbyists can take away and apply to our own husbandry methods. For those not versed in fish pathogens, the largest underlying cause of fish health problems are all in relation to their stress levels. Providing a clean, well aerated and properly stocked aquarium will go a very long way in ensuring that your aquatic pets are with you for a very long time.
   As Peter described the shipping routes and stop overs the fish must endure, it quickly became apparent that any one of the destinations can easily destroy all others preventative efforts if the livestock are not given the proper environment and time to regain from the unavoidable stress' of travel. Time of course is a critical factor since even with a supplier's best efforts and equipment, a shipping bag or container can only act as a very short lived environment. Any delay along the way greatly increases the stress levels of the fish. While the industry has greatly improved since my days of being a fish shop's manager, there will always be unavoidable stress upon the fish, which means that by the time a local fish shop receives the fish,  their stress levels will be at their highest, and equates into their being at their most vulnerable. This is where the fish shop must do all that it can to quickly reduce stress and isolate the newly arrived fish.
   Anyone who is either a hobbyist forum or club member has surely heard the numerous accounts of newly purchased fish being brought home only to die within a matter of days or infect an entire show aquarium with any number of possible pathogens. All of which can be linked directly to how the fish were handled and the stress' they were subjected to. Since the exporters are the first link in the chain, their efforts will of course determine the stamina the fish have to endure their travels. From my observations at Peter's facility, that critical first link has been taken care of.
   Sadly, all the efforts of any one link can be for naught if the fish arrive at a store only to be unpacked and unceremoniously dumped into a display tank and put up for immediate sale. When visiting a shop with the intent to purchase a new pet, I would ask that you inquire as to the shop's stress reduction procedures for newly arrived livestock and how they control pathogens.  If none exists, I would be very leary in purchasing a pet that has not been given the chance to recuperate and ensured to be pathogen free as any fish subjected to stress will be much more easily infected / infested. This will not negate your responsibility to do the same for a newly purchased fish as well. As hobbyists, we should also do all that we can to provide the proper habitat for each species that you keep and ensure that all newly acquired pets are quarantined with stress reduction being at the forefront of your efforts. There are many good articles available online detailing handling and quarantine procedures. If you are not familiar with such procedures, I believe you owe it to your new pet to become so. From what I have observed, the fish do get off to a good start, please do your best to ensure that they have a happy end to their journey as well.

Maribago Harbor and the boats used to access the offshore reefs.

This mirror is being hosted with the permissions of the original content creator for preservation and educational purposes.