Knife fish, Chitala sp. is a freshwater species commonly traded as an exotic aquarium fish and very popular among hobbyists. They come from South America and Southeast Asia specifically from Thailand, Borneo, Malaysia, India and Sumatra and usually found in lakes, swamps and river backwaters. They prefer still waters and can survive with low oxygen. According to Wikipedia, they are hearty eaters which is why people like them as pets.
Knife fish was accidentally introduced in Laguna de Bay, the largest lake in the Philippines during the super typhoon Ondoy (international name: Ketsana) in 2009 which caused flash floods in many parts of the country.
As early as 2011, reports from fisherfolk surfaced regarding knife fish being a pest as it eats tilapia and bangus which are two main commodities caught from the lake. The proliferation of knife fish has affected the aquaculture and capture fisheries of the lake causing the catch and harvest of the fisherfolk to decline dramatically. The bulk of the fisherfolk’s catch comprises now of knife fish which is not acceptable to them because it does not suffice to their previous income when most of their catch are bangus and tilapia. This is because knife fish only sells for P10-20/kg while bangus or tilapia is usually around P100.00/kg in local markets.
The fish is aggressive, highly carnivorous in nature and naturally breeds in ponds and open waters. In the wild, a knife fish can grow up to 100 cm in length and 5kg in weight. According to BFAR-National Inland Fisheries Technology Center (BFAR-NIFTC), the fish consumes/requires seven kilograms of different types of fishes to grow to a kilogram. It also rapidly produces with a fecundity of 20,000 eggs/kg of fish. Knife fish eggs are found attached on stakes and poles of fish cages and fishpens. Once the eggs hatched, the fry remain within the fish cages and pens where they grow and feed on the tilapia and bangus fry and fingerlings. The fish is now considered as an invasive species and a threat to the biodiversity of the lake, particularly to the indigenous species including silver therapon or ayungin, goby or biya and freshwater shrimp or hipon.
Knife fish as food fish
One of the strategies of BFAR in the containment of knife fish is to explore its economic utilisation. Under this is the use of knife fish as a raw material in postharvest. Trainings are now being conducted particularly to people from the coastal municipalities of Laguna Lake on the value-adding of knife fish.
BFAR IVA’s Fisheries Postharvest Division (FPHD) is now using knife fish as a raw material in making nuggets, burger patties, kikiam and siomai which are popular finger food in the country. In their recent technology demonstration held last July 26, 2013 for the people of Sitio Sumilang, Antipolo City, Rizal province, samples of burger patties and nuggets were tasted by the participants as well as their children (elementary and high school students). Many of the children commented that the products tasted like chicken while some said that it tasted like pork. The adults said that the meat was soft and tasty. The acceptability of the nuggets (with and without sauce) and patties was high as shown by the children who kept coming back and asked for more. Some adults took more than a piece and ate them with rice. In another techno-demo held last July 17, 2013, Department of Health employees loved the kikiam and siomai made from knife fish.
According to Ms Escolastica G. Dinapo, head of FPHD, the knife fish meat is a good raw material for value-adding because it is white, firm and can be easily removed from the skin. Also, the bones of knife fish can be easily removed. Unlike the bighead carp which is usually used by the FPHD Team in their techno-demos, the knife fish need not be rinsed numerous times because it does not have any undesirable odours; it does not smell nor taste “fishy” or malansa. As such, this lessens the steps, time and resources in processing the knife fish.
BFAR IVA’s Regional Director, Esmeralda Paz D. Manalang also supports this effort and said that the knife fish in Laguna Lake was tested to be free of heavy metals which are dangerous to man’s health.
Aside from value-adding, other strategies being employed by BFAR in the containment of knife fish in Laguna Lake are: the massive collection and retrieval of knife fish and its eggs in coordination with the LGUs and MFARMCs of the coastal municipalities; using knife fish as fish feed (trash fish for snakehead and fish meal ingredients in feeds for Pangasius and tilapia; coordination are also being made with other BFAR centers on the usage of knife fish as trash fish for maliputo, mudcrab and grouper); and development of handicraft products using the skin of knife fish.
Fishing gears will also be distributed to fisherfolk to increase retrieval of knife fish from highly affected areas. BFAR is also conducting research on the possible use of electrofishing and the use of dalag to prey on knife fish.
BFAR has also partnered with other agencies such as the Laguna Lake Development Authority, Department of Social Works and Development, Technical Education and Skills Development Authority and Department of Environment and Natural Resources among others to come up with other strategies to eradicate knife fish from the lake.