Delicacy Milkfish

Filipinos have a very special relationship to the milkfish or bangus. It is at the very top of diet regardless whether people are rich or poor. The demand exceeds the offer. Although present in the entire indopacific area with water temperatures above 20 degrees, the milkfish belongs to the national symbols of the Philippines and it appears in folk tales as "king of fish". Currently, it contributes with 217,000 tons approximately seven percent of the national fish production. Considering the decline of fisheries in the most important fishing-regions in the world, its aqua-farming gets higher priority with regard to a cheap protein-supply of the population.

Therefore consternation was enormous when in  Panggasinan and Dagupan (Lingayen Golf) - centers of the Philippine aqua-farming -  in February 2002  a massive fish kill occurred  accompanied with a  radical drop in prices.  Before this incident a company in the region put its sales promotion in internet under the slogan: „Our milkfish is probably the best milkfish in the world “. Cause of the fish kill was an oxygen deficiency, which resulted from polluted waters, congestion, overfeeding as well as increase of temperature. Dead fish came on the market and the price per kilo plumbed for a short time from 75 P to 15 P. And with this remark we are right in the topic.

 The fish

The milkfish is comparable with a herring in large size or a grey mullet. It is a plankton eater with metallic-silvery basic coloring and blue-green markings on top and under. Fine small scales dress the streamlined body. It has big eyes and a long fork-shaped final fin. On markets  the milkfish is normally offered in a size of 10 -15 cm length and a weight of 75–500 grams. However as a fish in natural habitat, it can reach a weight of 50 pounds, a length of 180 centimeters (!) and a maximum-age of 15 years. The milkfish is bony. Once a biologist has determined 66 bigger and smaller bones. Removal of the bones can be a problem. But there are also remarks that the bones lose their risks when  they are  cooked in vinegar-water. The milk-fish eats primarily (thread -) algae and other micro-plankton, sometimes also worms and fish-eggs. Therefore it is not necessary for the fish to have teeth but longer intestines.  

The milkfish is a powerful swarm-fish. It is not cannibalistic. That’s the reason  why it could be hold also in higher density in cages or ponds. It is typical for this fish that it can live in waters with different degree of salinity ( 0–100 ppt), provided the change takes place gradually. The quickly growing coastal-fish thrives best in brackish water zone, in which fresh and salty water is mixed. A female sets aside several millions of eggs from March to May. They swim on the water-surface. After 10-14 days  fry is slipping off. The aqua-farmers mainly use the fry for their commercial farming.    

Body size and strength of full-grown milkfish are attributes attracting anglers, especially as it swims in proximity of shores. In a provocative manner the fish often presents its back-fins to the angler. But catches are mostly  incidental . „Stalking these fish may take days or weeks, before you eventually hook one”. The fish is extremely mistrustful, doesn't accept many baits and needs a lot of backing as it makes long powerful runs at high speed. Successful anglers are reporting, that they managed to catch milk fish of 10–11 kg. They used bread and imitates of blood-worm as baits.    


Catches in free nature are however extremely rare. Since more than 150 years farm-fish is offered in the Philippines.  Milkfish is relatively simple to farm, it  grows up quickly and it  is relatively immune to illnesses. The fry is collected at estuaries and shore-proximity in the months from April to July and transferred to hatcheries or nursery ponds. But nowadays, larvae also can be produced  in artificial surroundings. This procedure guarantees a better continuity of the production. Semi-intensive farming is using as fodder plant a natural algae called “Lablab”, which is planted on the ground of pond. Chicken manure can be a fertilizer for “Lablab”- Algae. Sometimes old bread is used as fodder. Milkfish has a favorable conversion rate. Only 1.4 kg fodder is needed to produce 1 kg farm-fish. For comparison shrimps, crabs, salmons or groupers need 2 – 4 kg fish or pellets to produce one kg. There are some terms and techniques with regard to farming of milkfish.  

Following the age of fish we speak from (a) nursery ponds, (b) from grow-out or harvest-ponds. Nursery ponds have a stocking density (pcs/m3) from 75 – 100 fry and these stay in ponds round about four weeks to become fingerlings.                                                       

Cages, pens and ponds have different sizes. Cages reach 5m x 5m x 5m and there are 20-50 young fishes per m 3 . Pens have an area from 0.5 –5 ha and a depth from 3-4 m and there are 2-20 young fishes at the beginning. Ponds are reaching 0.5 – 9 hectares. The depth is 25 cm (extensive farming) and can reach 120 cm, if there is a intensive farming.

With regard to the water habitat there are three types: (a) freshwater, (b) brackish water and (c) marine water ponds. Freshwater ponds are rare in the Philippines (0.5%). Mostly they are used for farming of Tilapia-fish. They are more common in Taiwan. Brackish water ponds have a mixture of fresh and salty water from the sea. 94 % of the ponds in the Philippines are belonging to this type. Only 5 % of the ponds in the Philippines are marine water ponds. But there is a increasing demand for fish cultivated in this water habitat.   

The three types of cultivation are (a) extensive, (b) semi-intensive and (c) intensive. 

If there is an extensive farming, only robbery fish and competitors are removed. We find 0.2-6 fishes per m3 and the fish nourishes itself primarily from natural growing algae. Cultural period is 30 – 75 days and the harvest size 200 – 400 g. Gross yield per ha is 700 – 2000 kg a year. 

Additional water and additional fodder is given if there is a half-intensive farming. Mostly these ponds have a stocking density of 0.8 – 1.2 young fishes per m3 and cultural period reaches 60 – 135 days. Harvest size is 300 – 500 g and annual hectare crop is 2000 – 4000 kg. 

Intensive farming means, supplemental water gets pumped and there is an aeration of water. Fodder is only given by the operators of pond. Stocking density is more than 2 fish per m3 and culture period is 120 – 150 days. Harvest size is 300 – 500 g and gross yield per ha amounts to 4000 – 12000 kg per year.  

The number of harvests per year can vary. In general there are 3-4 harvests a year. If smaller fishes are cultivated, the number of harvests can increase to eight. For tuna-fishing for example 75g-fishes are often used as living-baits.  

Alsons Aqua Technologies (AATI) in Alabel, Sarangani province, is owner and operator of fish-farms with advanced mechanized technology. It has an area of 900 hectare for fish-farming  with own larvae breeding station,   adjustable installations for mixing of water as well as automatic feeding-lines.  

In normal case approximately 80–90 percent of the started young-fish are surviving.  But there are factors which can minimize a crop:  

Bad or too little fry. Actually the Philippines are depending on fry imports from Taiwan because there is a lack of  breeding stations in the country  

Bad management, for example by overstocking , wrong and overfeeding, lack of oxygen and ammonia-poisonings  

  Inadequate water-quality. Pollutions and contaminations through uncleaned waters in particular in the waters north of Manila  

  Natural disasters like typhoons or drought periods / snails or virus infestations  

For the year 2001  a crop of 217,289 tons of milkfish is  reported, the production could be increased by six percent compared with the year 2000. A higher production in the near future  depends on additional fry from new hatcheries. Leading place in production is Bulacan followed with further distance by Pangasinan, Iloilo and Capiz.

90 percent of the Philippine milkfish-production is bought up and marketed by brokers („viajeros“). They get a commission of approximately 4–5 percent. The prices for milk-fish fluctuate seasonal, higher prices are demanded in the months of December until May. Average wholesale-price for one kg milkfish was 68 Pesos in the year 2000 -  in the retail, the average sale-price amounted to 82 Pesos.  

Most farm-owners and brokers sell the milkfish on the province-markets. 660 tons – that corresponds to less than a percent – went in the year 2000 into the export. Main-buyers are the USA. Philippine exporters to the USA are confronted with a  price  and quality-competition especially with regard to offers from Taiwan. Now Taiwan has gained the market-leadership in the USA and offers frozen fish more cheaply. Sometimes Philippine exporters have problems with the quality of fish. As Mercie J. dela Cruz reports, container-freights of exported milk-fish were already rejected from Laguna Lake because of muddy taste. Experts argue, Philippine producers should give more value to their fish by further steps of preparation and  should create more convenience-products, especially since labor costs in the Philippines are lower in comparison to Taiwan. Row fish can get more value by:  

 Boning and Filleting      Salting / Marinating     Smoking      Drying

  Offer of parts of fish / for example of belly , which is regarded as special delicacy  


There are many recipes for preparing a milk-fish. Detailed recipes are given by the following addresses: 

Grilled milk-fish, (Inihaw na Bangus): Clean the fish, salt it, add pepper and lemon juice. Then fill the fish with diced tomato-pieces and onions, cover it with foil  an bake it on a grill approximately 15 minutes per side.  

The filled milk-fish ( Rellenong Bangus): requires a  more extensive procedure. Remove the scales of fish, then clean and dry it. Open at back. Solve the skin from meat and spice it with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a pan and roast garlic pieces brown and onion slices transparent. Add a  half cup of tomato cubes and the squashed fish-meat. After cooking, still lemon-juice, peas, the remained tomato-pieces as well as raisins are added. After repeated short boiling lash an egg  and fill  the fish with the mixture. Close the fish at the back and fry it gold-brown.  

Milk-fish in sour broth, (Sinigang na Bangus): Perhaps you have to visit an  Asia-Shop because of the  ingredients. Remove the scales of fish, then cut it in 4–6 pieces and salt it. In an extra pot, tamarind (Sampaloc) is cooked tenderly and the juice gets extracted. Then on low flame, the tamarind-juice is cooked with onions and tomatoes. The fish-pieces as well as eggplant-pieces, Okra and Kankong-leaves are added. Spice it with salt and patis ( fish-sauce) and serve it hot. Alternatively, spinach-leaves, banana-hearts or green beans can be added as vegetables.  

The milk-fish in the fairy-tale

We mentioned already that in a Philippine fairy-tale the milkfish appears as „king of the fish “. It’s the fairy-tale “The Mermaid” („Ang Kataw“) we refer to. It documents the high appreciation of the milkfish since primeval times – even if there is a tragic end of story.  

Once upon a time there lived a couple Juan and Juana near the sea side and they were very delighted when Juana became pregnant after long years of childless. In time of her pregnancy however Juana became always very restless if there was no milkfish to eat. A day came again and Juan could not get any milk-fish. Sorrowfully he sat in his boat when he heard somebody  calling his name. Looking into the water he saw a shiny milkfish with a crown. The fish introduced itself as king of the fish and asked him for the reason, why he would hooking only milk-fish. With sad voice Juan mentioned the pregnancy of his wife and the fish-king felt pity. He promised him: „I’ll  give a plenty of milkfish every day. In return however, you have to give me your child, if it is seven years old”. Juan agreed, because it was already dark and the milk-fish was rare in that season.  

The fish-king kept his promise. Now there was no lack of milkfish anymore.  Juana gave birth to a daughter with name Maria, who grew up to a lovely girl with black hair. The luck of the family was unmarred up to the seventh year of her daughter.  

Juan and Juana loved her daughter very much, so Juan went after the seventh year of  his daughter to the fish-king and asked him to release him from his promise. But the milkfish king insisted on the promise of the fisherman. With a heavy heart Juan went home and from now on the family did not go anymore to the sea shore.  

One day however, a big beautiful boat appeared at the beach. The people flocked to the shore to see it. Daughter Maria, who was alone at home, ran also curiously to the beach. While watching the ship, a gigantic wave rushed up and moved Maria into the sea. Since this time Maria remained vanished.  

Years passed. But one moonlight night a lovely creature appeared to the couple. She had a long black hair. The upper body was that of a beautiful girl - the low body-half was that of a milk-fish however. Now, the parents knew that it was Maria.  

© Wolfgang Bethge, 2002