In theory, the Live Reef Fish Trade (LRFT) is simple – reef fish are caught and kept alive until the moment they are cooked in a restaurant or hotel. In reality, the trade is besieged by many issues at every level of the process. At the source, the issues are overfishing, catching of juveniles, using noxious substances (mostly sodium cyanide) to catch fish easily and targeted fishing for high-value species, often to the point of disrupting the food chain in source areas. Although some species of groupers are already being bred in aquaculture laboratories and farms, the leopard coral trout (Plectropomus leopardus), a preferred and expensive species for the foreign market, has not yet been bred for production on a commercial scale. In some cases, targeted species like the humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) have been harvested to the point that they are now classified as endangered species under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The LRFT initiative of WWF-Philippines had very humble beginnings. It began in 2007 with a USD 2790 grant to search for spawning aggregation sites in Palawan. Over the next years, WWF continued to conduct more research projects on the LRFT, as this programme eventually became a priority of the CTI.
A project anchored on an ecosystems approach to fisheries management (EAFM), specifically on planning and policy development, LRFT was the rallying point for stakeholders' involvement in EAFM work. Research conducted in partnership with the Western Philippines University (WPU) and the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC) was used as a basis for new fishery management ordinances in the municipalities of Araceli, Dumaran, Taytay and Quezon to update and synthesize existing fishery management policies with Comprehensive Land and Water Use Plans (CLWUP). Together, these policies cover over 363,000 hectares of municipal waters in Palawan.
The programme also assisted in improving the MPAs of the three municipalities and identifying and declaring new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). As a result, Araceli transformed 17,000 hectares of its municipal waters into the Hart Reef MPA while 3000 hectares of new MPAs are being proposed in Taytay, allowing it to meet the required 15% of protected municipal waters under the Philippine Fisheries Code. Another 60,000 hectares of MPAs are under consideration in Quezon, Palawan.