A Field Guide to Common Marine Fishes of Singapore

Fish index (by name)
Fish families (by picture)
Parts of a fish
Kelvin K P Lim and Jeffrey K Y Low

As in many parts of the world, fish forms a large part of many Singaporeans' diet. In Singapore, there are two large fishing ports where almost every morning, trawlers bring in fish caught mainly in the South China Sea and Andaman Sea, to be distributed to wet markets and restaurants. Apart from trawlers, food fish are also supplied by kelongs and fish farms.
fishes being sorted at the port
Jurong fishing port
photo: Robert Kerle
Barbecued stingray and curry fish-head, are among the most popular fish dishes in Singapore. The major ingredient for the expensive shark's fin soup is the severed pectoral and dorsal fins of sharks and guitarfishes. Fish are sold live, frozen or processed in various ways, e.g., dried and salted, pickled in brine, deep-fried or canned. The more popular food fishes include sea bass (barramundi), groupers, pomfrets, snappers, threadfins, scads and rabbbitfishes. Many of those found locally are illustrated in this book.
Along the coast, especially in the north-eastern area around Pulau Tekong and Pulau Ubin, one may see small houses built on wooden stakes driven into the seafloor.These are actually fish traps known locally as kelongs. The stakes are positioned such that fish are attracted into a corral with an overhanging light.
kelong at sunset
Kelong in the Johor Straits
off Yishun

photo Kelvin Lim
A net lining the corral is lifted up during the night and the trapped fishes are scooped up. The catch is then sorted according to size and edibility. Apart from anchovies, most of the small ones end up being sold to fish farms as food for groupers, sea basses and snappers.

In the Johor Straits, there are fish farms consisting of floating net cages where commercially important fish are reared from fingerlings to marketable sizes. Most of these fingerlings are imported from around the Southeast Asian region (e.g., Indonesia and the Philippines).
view of floating fish farm
Floating fish farm off Changi
photo: Cynthia Lee
diagram of polkadot grouper
The Polkadot Grouper (Cromileptes altevelis) grows to 70 cm and is often reared in floating net cages. It has a distinct small head and brown spots all over its body.
Groupers (e.g., Epinephelus spp., Cromileptes altivelis), snappers (Lutjanus spp.), threadfin (Eleutheronema tetradactylum), and milkfish (Chanos chanos) are among the more popular species reared. Many of these fish are supplied live to restaurants both locally and overseas.

In Singapore, there are still a few traditional fishermen who operate from little wooden vessels (sampans) and use gill-nets, traps (bu-bus) and lines to obtain their catch.

However, most forms of line fishing practised today along our coastlines are of the recreational type. Bedok jetty along the East Coast Parkway is one of the most popular spots for recreational fishing. The more enthusiastic anglers rent boats to fish in the open sea.

Many of the fishes pictured in this book have been kindly contributed by such individuals. The edible fishes caught often end up as dinner, but some anglers are carefully releasing their catches back to the sea to prevent unnecessary killing.
traditional fisherman
Traditional fisherman on his sampan in the Johor Straits
photo: N Sivasothi

fisherman and his catch
Fisherman and cobla
photo: Serene L M Teo
Mention must also be made of commercial fishing ponds which charge admission prices for recreation anglers. These ponds are usually stocked with fishes of food value, for instance, groupers, seabass and snappers.

The colourful fishes found on reefs support the growing scuba-diving industry, which prove lucrative for the eco-tourist trade in many insular tropical countries. Due to poor water visibility all year round, Singapore's reefs are not popular diving spots, but more and more Singaporeans are taking up diving as a form of recreation. They often head out to Malaysia and Indonesia where the waters are clear and where the fishes are perceived to be more bountiful and beautiful.
colourful angelfish
Blue-ring Angelfish in the Singapore Straits
photo: REST

Singapore is a major exporter of ornamental fish. Although there is intensive breeding of freshwater species here, the marine ones are largely imported from neighbouring areas like Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines. The marine aquarium hobby is popular in Singapore and marine aquariums are also used to decorate shopping centres and offices. As very few marine fishes have been bred in captivity, most are harvested from the wild, sometimes with the use of harmful chemicals like cyanide. As a consequence, only a very small portion of the catches make it alive to the hobbyists' tanks. This practice has caused much concern with conservation groups.

Some fishes are also used for traditional medicine. The most important of these are members of the families Syngnathidae and Pegasidae, i.e., the seahorses, seamoths and pipefishes. These fishes, harvested from the wild, are dried and sold in Chinese medicine shops, Brewed into soup, they are said to help cure skin disorders. Some conservation groups have protested against uncontrolled harvesting of seahorses in the region.

Quality leather can be obtained from the granular skin on the back of dasyatid stingrays. Many large stingrays brought into the fish markets have that part of their skin neatly trimmed out. These are then treated and tanned to be made into belts and handbags. Although not often seen in Singapore, the curio trade, a result of the tourist industry, does use the occasional fish for making ornaments. Pufferfishes and porcupinefishes are often the victims. These are sun-dried whilst in their inflated form and later painted and varnished to be made into lanterns.
Coastal Marine Habitats
Fishy Trivia
Dangerous Fishes
Fishes and Man
About the guidebook
From A Guide to Common Marine Fishes of Singapore by Kelvin K P Lim and Jeffrey K Y Low
Published by the Singapore Science Centre and sponsored by BP

©Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research and Singapore Science Centre