Coral Reef Fish Approved for Listing Lucrative live reef food fish trade threatens Napoleon Wrasse with extinction
BANGKOK, THAILAND The Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) is concluding its 13th meeting in Bangkok, Thailand. Delegates from 166 countries have approved the inclusion of a highly threatened species of fish known as Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), for listing on Appendix II of CITES in Committee meetings today. It is expected this decision will stand, and debate on the listing will not be re-opened in Plenary session.
Proposed for listing by the United States, Fiji, and the European Union, the Napoleon wrasse is over-exploited by the lucrative live reef food fish trade. Also known as the Humphead or Maori wrasse, C. undulatus deserves special attention since listing of this species would also bring urgent additional protection to fragile coral reef ecosystems.
As a rare and spectacular species, the Napoleon wrasse currently commands some of the highest prices in luxury restaurant markets in Hong Kong—1997 retail prices ranged from US $90-$175 per kg. This means a single large specimen could retail for between US $11,700 and US $33,250.
According to Linda Paul, board member of Species Survival Network and representative of Earthtrust and the Hawai`i Audubon Society at the CITES meeting in Bangkok, "The harvest of pre-reproductive humphead wrasse for the luxury Asian restaurant market is the single greatest threat to this species." Paul is attending the meeting as an advocate for protecting marine species exploited by international trade.
The rapidly growing live reef food fish (LRFF) trade has now expanded to cover nearly the entire range of the Napoleon wrasse throughout the Indo-Pacific. "Where humphead wrasse is harvested for the international live reef food fish trade, there has been up to an 80-90 % decline in population," says Paul.
Overfishing is a tremendous threat to this species particularly because it grows slowly, matures late, aggregates to spawn, and is hermaphroditic (sex-change from female when small to male when large). Smuggling and under-reporting of fish landings is also common in the LRFF trade, and illegal trade in Napoleon wrasse is growing.
Almost all Napoleon wrasse are harvested using cyanide. Cyanide is highly destructive to coral reefs because it leaves residual toxins in the water that kill corals, algae, and other non-target fish and invertebrates. "This turns huge tracts of reef habitat into barren 'deserts,' where fish can no longer survive. Because of this, the Napoleon wrasse is being depleted by a combination of over-harvesting and habitat degradation," says Paul.
Capture rates of Napoleon wrasse for the international LRFF trade currently exceed sustainable levels by 400% or more, and areas where this intensive fishing has occurred are showing a tenfold decline in Napoleon wrasse numbers.
This alarming trend has resulted in the urgent need for C. undulatus to be listed on Appendix II of CITES, which although not resulting in a ban will require trade monitoring and regulation. Today is an important day for both the future protection of the Napoleon wrasse and coral reef ecosystems throughout the Indo-Pacific.