Sinarapan -- The World's Smallest Commercial Fish

Sinarapan which is scientifically known as Mistichthys luzonensis is the world's smallest commercially harvested fish and is found in Lakes Bato and Buhi in Camarines Sur, part of the Philippines' Bicol Region. Contrary to common belief, sinarapan is not the smallest fish known. Another goby, Pandaka pygmaea, also found only in the Philippines, is the smallest known vertebrate and may be endangered.

In life, sinarapan are transparent, with the large black eyes showing the only color. Preserved specimens are opaque with a few dark or black spots scantily sprinkled over sides, back and head; the large prominent iris is deep black, the pupil white; the caudal fin is faintly cross-barred by many rows of minute dark brown specks; the other fins are colorless; in some specimens, the snout is black; there may be a faint black vertical stripe under the eyes and a row of dark spots at the base of the anal fin.

Sinarapan have an average length of 12.5-mm, the males somewhat smaller than females. Males are sometimes mature when under 10-mm in length, their maximum length being 13.5-mm. Occasionally one finds ripe females a little over 11-mm long while the largest are only 14-mm in length.

This tiny goby occurs in vast numbers in the lake, from near the shoreline out to where the water is at least 10 to 20 meters deep, and breeds throughout the year. According to the inhabitants of Buhi, the eggs float on the surface of the lake covering large areas, especially during sunny days in March and April. Specimens collected in the latter part of September and in January were breeding. When hatched, the young swim first at the surface but after a short time go to the bottom to live.

Sinarapan probably rise to the surface with the diurnal movement of the plankton on which they feed. The unique method used to capture them capitalizes on this habit by providing a roosting place in which they gather in swarms. From time immemorial they have been caught in large quantities by the people living near the lake and are regarded by them as a staple food of superior delicacy. The right to catch them is given by the municipality to the highest bidders who then have the exclusive fishing privilege for such part of the lake as they have leased.

The fishermen cut a bamboo stalk, 10 meters or longer, with the butt sharpened and branches removed except three or four of the uppermost twigs. With a palm leaf wrapped around the topmost meter or two, the trap, called abung, is then set firmly into the lake bottom with the tip and a spur of the palm leaf protruding above the surface so it can be easily relocated. During the day the sinarapan come to rest upon the palm leaf. About the middle of the afternoon the fishermen go out to the traps scattered about their leasehold to capture the fish using a triangular net, or sarap, made of sinamay, a cloth made of abaca fiber. The sarap is mounted on a Y-frame of bamboo and with it the abung is swept from the bottom of the palm leaf to the top. Usually from a half liter to a liter of sinarapan are caught at each trap. The fish are dumped into a large basket from which the water drains at once leaving a strange wriggling, skipping and otherwise transparent mass except for the large black eyes.

The sinarapan cannot be caught along the shore, though they can be readily seen there, because they are protected by dense masses of aquatic plants.

Mingled with the sinarapan and feeding upon them are larger fishes of various kinds, including eels, kotnag (Hemiramphus cotnog - a half-beak) and larger gobies, which are occasionally caught when the fisherman swoops his net over an abung.

Sinarapan are fried in oil, or boiled with vegetables, and have a delicious flavor. When more are caught than the local market demands, the surplus is salted or dried in cakes and exported to the neighboring towns in Camarines Sur and Albay Provinces.

Lake Buhi is a beautiful expanse of water, of irregular bi-lobed shape, about 50 meters in average depth and about 5 by 8 km in area. It lies at an elevation of about 100 meters and is surrounded by lofty, rugged mountains which rise precipitously along much of its shoreline. The lake is well supplied with a good variety of fishes some of them known from only the Bicol River and its tributaries of which Lake Buhi is a feeder.

Jagor was the first writer to notice these tiny gobies and he stated that they were caught and eaten daily in enormous quantities. His specimens, collected in November 1859, were sent to Dr. Peters of Berlin, along with other fishes from Buhi. Peters evidently did not examine them closely and likely thought they were the young of Gobius dispar, a new species he described also from Lake Buhi.

They receive no further notice until the American occupation when Drs. Zeller and F. W. Richardson, of the U.S. Army, sent specimens to Dr. H. M. Smith of the Bureau of Fisheries who described them as a new genus and species in 1902.

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