PHILIPPINE  SCIENCE  AS  WORLD  SCIENCE:  CASE  OF MILKFISH REPRODUCTION

MANILA, JANUARY 16, 2008 (STAR) STAR SCIENCE By Raul Kamantigue Suarez, Ph.D. - The milkfish sold in many Asian stores all over North America is bought mainly by Filipinos. Most Caucasians have never heard of it, while other ethnic groups do not seem to consume it with the same enthusiasm as do Filipinos. The low international demand for milkfish was one factor that led the International Development Research Center (IDRC) of Canada to fund milkfish research in the Philippines. As they put it, bangus is “protein for the masses.”

In the 1970s, I worked as a research assistant while studying for my master’s degree at UP Diliman. My master’s supervisor, Flor Lacanilao, had just returned after earning his Ph.D. in comparative endocrinology from the University of California at Berkeley. Our project to study milkfish reproductive physiology was funded by the National Science Development Board (NSDB) and the UP Natural Sciences Research Center (UPNSRC). Some of Dr. Lacanilao’s lectures were about how environmental factors provide sensory inputs that are processed by the nervous system, which, in turn, regulates the production of hormones by the pituitary gland. Among several hormones produced by the pituitary are those involved in reproduction. It is known that changes in the environment, via this pathway, affect the production and secretion of hormones that regulate the maturation of testes and ovaries. These “gonads” produce steroid hormones that are also involved in reproduction. This cocktail of pituitary and steroid hormones, under the right environmental conditions, stimulates sexual maturation and spawning, i.e., the release of sperm and eggs into the water, allowing external fertilization. A problem the Philippines faces is that the entire milkfish aquaculture industry relies on a seasonal, unreliable supply of wild-caught baby fish (fry) for stocking ponds. Although earlier studies had shown that large, meter-long milkfish could be caught and induced to spawn by hormone injections, this procedure is traumatic and usually fatal, and cannot be relied upon to supply fry to the entire aquaculture industry. So an important question was how milkfish could be grown, induced to mature and spawn in captivity.

What was required was the application of the scientific method — the formulation and testing of hypotheses. The resulting increase in understanding of milkfish reproductive physiology would lead to successful captive breeding. This may sound reasonable, but imagine applying for a P250 cash advance, waiting more than a week for the money, spending it all in one afternoon to buy supplies, submitting receipts, then applying for the next cash advance. This involved spending more time and energy satisfying the demands of bureaucrats than doing research. We often ran out of fish food, so I bought sliced bread to feed our fish. Then, an auditor called me to his office to accuse me of eating the bread myself. The interrogation lasted half an hour but I never confessed. This was the 1970s when theft of more than sliced bread was happening in high places. To make a long story short, our project failed.

By the early 1980s, Clarissa Marte (also a UP faculty member) and Flor Lacanilao had both moved to the Aquaculture Department of the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) in Iloilo where they tried a different approach: they kept milkfish in floating cages in their natural, marine environment and let nature take its course. Subjected to natural, seasonal changes in environmental factors, the milkfish spontaneously matured and spawned; external fertilization followed and baby fry were produced. Flor Lacanilao’s dream had finally come true! In subsequent years, they showed that the results were reproducible and studied the underlying hormonal mechanisms. This was a truly Filipino success story: the first case of spontaneous sexual maturation and spawning of milkfish in captivity, followed by research to decipher the causal mechanisms responsible. One might be led to think that research concerning milkfish would be of interest only to Filipinos and publishable only in local, Philippine journals. However, the breakthrough article authored by Marte and Lacanilao was published in the international, peer-reviewed journal Aquaculture in 1986. This shows that when the scientific method is applied to address worthwhile questions, research concerning this “fish that no one cares about” (except us) becomes worthy of publication in international scientific journals. Indeed, my quick search for titles bearing “milkfish” using the ISI Web of Science yielded 227 articles published over the past 31 years, authored by a wide range of nationalities.

Scientists publish papers to report discoveries, describe phenomena, and explain new knowledge and understanding to the world. So, it must have been with great pride that Drs. Marte and Lacanilao announced to the world their truly Filipino achievement. When they did, their peers were other scientists in the international community — specialists in aquaculture, fish physiology, and fish reproductive biology. The publication of their paper in 1986 meant that it was judged to be of sufficient quality to merit publication by the journal’s reviewers and editors. The visibility gained and access to the article provided by the journal allows, even today, the evaluation of the quality and significance of their work by the international community. It was not my intention to write a complete history of Philippine research concerning milkfish reproduction. Rather, I call attention to this breakthrough article, as well as others published in international journals concerning milkfish, as examples of how Philippine science and world science are one.

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Raul Kamantigue Suarez is a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, University of California, Santa Barbara, California and an editor of the Journal of Experimental Biology, Cambridge, UK. E-mail him at suarez@lifesci.ucsb.edu.


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