Milkfish, Elisabeth Morcel, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Milkfish: Everything You Need to Know About Chanos Chanos

What is Milkfish?

Milkfish (Chanos chanos), a tropical marine teleost fish belonging to the family Chanidae, is a highly prized species that has been a staple food source for thousands of years, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Milkfish has gained importance in these regions due to their resilience, adaptability, and high nutritional value. They are also a significant species in aquaculture, with a long history of cultivation in several Asian countries. This article delves into the biology, ecology, and aquaculture of Milkfish, offering a detailed understanding of this essential species.

Why is it Called Milkfish?

The name “milkfish” is derived from the fish’s whitish colour, which results from its smooth, shiny scales reflecting light. This appearance, its creamy texture, and its delicate, mildly sweet flavour have contributed to its common name as the Milkfish.

Biology and Morphology of Milkfish

Milkfish can reach a maximum length of 180 cm and a weight of approximately 14 kg, although the average size for commercially grown Milkfish is typically smaller. They have a fusiform body shape, a distinct forked caudal fin, and a prominent dorsal fin positioned near the body’s middle. The unique toothless oral cavity of Milkfish is an adaptation for filter-feeding on various food sources, including phytoplankton, zooplankton, and detritus.

Life Cycle and Reproduction

The Milkfish exhibits a complex life cycle that consists of several developmental stages. Spawning typically occurs in the open ocean, where females release their eggs, which males fertilize. The fertilized eggs develop into leptocephalus larvae, which are characterized by their elongated, transparent bodies. After approximately 20-40 days, the leptocephalus larvae metamorphose into the juvenile stage, migrating to estuaries, mangrove areas, or freshwater habitats. Juvenile Milkfish grow and mature in these environments, eventually returning to the ocean as adults to reproduce.

Ecology and Distribution

Milkfish are euryhaline, meaning they can tolerate a wide range of salinities. This adaptability allows them to thrive in various aquatic habitats, including marine, estuarine, and freshwater environments. Milkfish are primarily found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, with their distribution stretching from the east coast of Africa to the Hawaiian and Marquesan Islands and from the Ryukyu Islands to New South Wales.

Aquaculture of Milkfish

Milkfish farming has been practiced for centuries, particularly in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Taiwan. Traditional aquaculture methods involve capturing wild juvenile Milkfish and growing them in brackish freshwater ponds or cages. In recent years, the development of hatchery technologies has enabled the production of milkfish fry in a controlled environment, providing a reliable and sustainable supply of juveniles for farming.

Milkfish aquaculture has the potential to contribute significantly to global food security. However, there are challenges that must be addressed, including the improvement of feed efficiency, the reduction of disease outbreaks, and the minimization of environmental impacts.

Ecological Implications of Milkfish Farming

While milkfish farming provides an essential source of protein and income for many communities, it also has ecological implications. Issues such as habitat degradation, water pollution, and introducing non-native species have been associated with milkfish aquaculture. Efforts to mitigate these environmental impacts include implementing best management practices, developing sustainable aquaculture technologies, and promoting environmental awareness among stakeholders.

Are Milkfish Good to Eat?

Milkfish is a highly nutritious food source, providing essential nutrients such as high-quality protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. The consumption of Milkfish has been associated with various health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, reduced inflammation, and enhanced brain function. 

Is Milkfish High in Mercury?

Milkfish is a low-mercury fish, making it a safer option for regular consumption than other fish species with higher levels of mercury.

How to Debone and Prepare Milkfish?

Deboning and preparing Milkfish for cooking requires some skill and patience, but it becomes easier to achieve with practice. Here is a step-by-step guide to deboning and preparing Milkfish for cooking:

  1. Choose fresh Milkfish: When selecting Milkfish, opt for fresh, firm, and clean-smelling fish with clear eyes and intact scales. The gills should be pink or red, indicating freshness.
  2. Clean the fish: Rinse the Milkfish under cold running water, removing debris or slime. Pat it dry with paper towels.
  3. Remove the scales: Hold the Milkfish by the tail and use the blunt edge of a knife or a fish scaler to sweep off the scales in a sweeping motion from the tail towards the head. Be sure to remove scales on both sides of the fish.
  4. Cut off the head, tail, and fins: Using a sharp knife, remove the head by making a diagonal cut just behind the gill cover. Cut off the tail and all the fins, including the dorsal, anal, and pelvic fins.
  5. Slit the belly: Make a shallow incision along the belly from the head-end to the tail-end of the fish. Be careful not to cut too deep, which may puncture the internal organs.
  6. Remove the innards: Gently pull out the innards from the abdominal cavity, ensuring that you remove the air bladder and kidney as well. Rinse the cavity thoroughly under cold running water to remove any remaining traces of blood or organs.
  7. Butterfly the Milkfish: Place the fish on a cutting board with its back facing up. Using a sharp knife, make a shallow cut along the dorsal side of the fish, starting from the head-end to the tail-end, cutting just deep enough to reach the backbone. Carefully separate the flesh from the spine on both sides, working your way down from the dorsal fin towards the belly without cutting through the skin on the opposite side.
  8. Debone the fish: Once the flesh is separated from the backbone, carefully lift the spine and remove it from the fish in one piece, not breaking any rib bones. The fish should now be connected only by the skin on the belly side.
  9. Remove the rib bones: Using needle-nose pliers or tweezers, grasp the exposed rib bones and gently pull them away from the flesh at an angle. Repeat this process for all the rib bones on both sides of the fish.
  10. Remove the pin bones: Locate the pin bones, which run along the center of each fillet. Using needle-nose pliers or tweezers, carefully remove each pin bone by grasping it at the base and pulling it out at an angle.
  11. Final cleaning: Rinse the deboned Milkfish under cold running water to remove any remaining blood, scales, or bones. Pat the fish dry with paper towels.
  12. Prepare for cooking: The deboned and butterflied Milkfish can now be seasoned, marinated, or stuffed according to your preferred recipe. It can be grilled, baked, fried, or steamed, depending on your desired cooking method.

With practice, deboning and preparing Milkfish for cooking becomes more manageable, allowing you to enjoy this popular fish’s delicious, nutritious, and versatile qualities.

How to Cook Milkfish

Milkfish is a versatile and delicious fish that can be prepared using various cooking methods. Here are a few ways to cook Milkfish, showcasing its flavor and texture:

Grilled Milkfish

  1. Marinate the deboned and butterflied Milkfish in a mixture of soy sauce, calamansi or lime juice, minced garlic, and ground black pepper for at least 30 minutes.
  2. Preheat a grill to medium-high heat.
  3. Brush the grill grates with oil to prevent sticking.
  4. Place the milkfish skin-side on the grill and cook for 5-7 minutes until the skin is crispy and slightly charred.
  5. Flip the fish and cook for another 5-7 minutes until the flesh is cooked and flakes easily with a fork.
  6. Serve with a dipping sauce made from vinegar, minced garlic, chopped onions, and chopped chili peppers.

Fried Milkfish (Daing na Bangus)

  1. Marinate the deboned and butterflied Milkfish in a mixture of vinegar, crushed garlic, and salt for at least 30 minutes.
  2. Preheat a frying pan with enough oil for shallow frying over medium heat.
  3. Remove the fish from the marinade, allowing excess liquid to drain, and dredge the Milkfish in cornstarch or flour.
  4. Fry the Milkfish for 3-5 minutes on each side or until golden brown and crispy.
  5. Drain on paper towels and serve with a side of steamed rice and a dipping sauce of your choice.

Milkfish Sinigang (Sour Soup)

  1. Cut the Milkfish into steaks or use a whole deboned and butterflied Milkfish.
  2. Combine water, tamarind soup base or tamarind fruit, chopped tomatoes, and chopped onions in a large pot. Bring to a boil.
  3. Add the Milkfish and cook for 5-7 minutes until almost cooked.
  4. Add your choice of vegetables, such as daikon radish, long green beans, and okra, and cook until tender.
  5. Add some leafy greens like kangkong (water spinach) or spinach, and cook for another 1-2 minutes.
  6. Season with fish sauce and salt to taste, and serve hot with steamed rice.

Milkfish Escabeche (Sweet and Sour Fish)

  1. Season deboned and butterflied Milkfish with salt and pepper, then dredge in cornstarch or flour.
  2. Heat oil in a frying pan and fry the Milkfish until golden brown and crispy on both sides. Remove from the pan and set aside.
  3. In the same pan, sauté garlic, onions, and ginger until fragrant.
  4. Add thinly sliced bell peppers, carrots, and pineapple chunks, and cook until the vegetables are tender.
  5. Combine vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, and cornstarch in a bowl, then pour into the pan with the vegetables.
  6. Cook until the sauce thickens, then pour over the fried Milkfish.
  7. Garnish with green onions and serve with steamed rice.

These are just a few ways to cook Milkfish, highlighting its versatility in various dishes. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different flavours and cooking methods to discover your favourite way to enjoy this delicious and nutritious fish.

Future Prospects and Challenges

As the global demand for fish continues to grow, milkfish aquaculture offers significant potential for meeting this demand sustainably. However, several challenges must be addressed to ensure the long-term success of milkfish farming. These challenges include:

  1. Enhancing feed efficiency: Developing cost-effective and environmentally sustainable feed formulations is crucial for reducing the reliance on wild-caught fish for feed production.
  2. Disease management: The expansion of milkfish farming has led to increased disease outbreaks, which can negatively impact production. Improved disease management strategies, such as probiotics and vaccination, are necessary to ensure the health and productivity of milkfish stocks.
  3. Minimizing environmental impacts: Sustainable aquaculture practices, including the implementation of closed-loop systems, integrated multitrophic aquaculture, and the restoration of degraded habitats, can help reduce the ecological footprint of milkfish farming.
  4. Climate change adaptation: As climate change alters aquatic ecosystems, milkfish farmers must adapt their practices to maintain productivity and minimize negative environmental impacts. This may involve shifting to more resilient species or strains, adjusting management practices, and adopting innovative technologies.


In conclusion, Milkfish (Chanos chanos) is an important species with significant ecological, nutritional, and economic value. Understanding its biology, ecology, and aquaculture is essential for the sustainable development of the milkfish industry and the preservation of the species in its natural habitats. As we address the challenges associated with milkfish farming, there is great potential for this versatile species to continue contributing to global food security and nutrition.

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