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Report warns of dire future for Coral Triangle reef fish

Fish are often caught using potassium cyanide and then injected with antibiotics to keep them alive.
The Life Reef Fish for Food Trade (LRFFT) is one of the least regulated fisheries on the planet. Fish are often caught using potassium cyanide and then injected with antibiotics to keep them alive while they are transported to Hong Kong and south China. Photograph: James Morgan/jamesmorgan.co.uk

The US$1 billion a year Live Reef Fish for Food Trade (LRFFT) is threatening the future of key reef predator species like grouper, coral trout and Napoleon wrasse, according to a recent study.

The study - published by WWF, the Swire Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and ADM Capital Foundation - urges swift action towards regulating an industry that’s decimating stocks of these species across the Coral Triangle, threatening poor communities that rely on the fishery for their livelihoods.

The Live Reef Fish for Food Trade (LRFFT) is largely fuelled by consumers in Hong Kong, and mainland China, for whom reef species are a delicacy - dishes that must be served at formal dining occasions such as weddings.

While campaigns against shark-finning have achieved some success, it is difficult to raise similar levels of awareness about these less iconic species, in spite of their crucial role in sustaining reef ecosystems.

Though small in size compared to other fisheries, the LRFFT is disproportionately valuable, thanks to prestige driven demand. Napoleon Wrasse for example can fetch more than $600 per kilo, according to the report. And the estimated US$1 billion a year in revenue only accounts for the legal side of the business.

“The real value of the trade is unknown, since much is traded illegally on the black market,” says Geoffrey Muldoon, Senior Manager of the WWF Coral Triangle Programme. The report estimates that the volume of LRFFT imports into Hong Kong are being underestimated by as much as 50%. “Traders, transport and logistics carriers are allowed to exploit a vacuum created by inadequate and outdated regulation, loopholes in the law and lax enforcement,” says Muldoon.

The 15-20 reef species that make up the bulk of the trade - most of them types of grouper - are especially vulnerable since they are relatively slow to mature. The market’s unrelenting demand means that fishers are taking increasing numbers of juveniles before they’ve had a chance to spawn.

“The rate at which we are taking reef fish from our oceans, including juveniles, is simply not sustainable,” says Dr Yvonne Sadovy, a professor of biological sciences and the study’s lead author. “It is critical Hong Kong takes steps to regulate before it is too late.”

Some have touted mariculture as a potential solution, but while there is a growing market for farmed grouper, these operations don’t actually reduce pressure on wild populations. It’s difficult to hatchery-produce species like coral trout in commercial quantities, so juveniles are still taken from the wild for grow out. Also, consumers tend to believe that wild caught fish are superior in quality, which in turn makes them more valuable to traders.

With Chinese New Year arriving on 16th February, dinner tables across southern China and southeast Asia will be laden with the obligatory plates of steamed grouper. But consumers will likely have little idea of where their fish came from, or how it was caught.

Few will know that fishers often favour potassium cyanide as a means of stunning fish so they are easier to catch. Or that fishers use compressor engines to pump air through hose pipes, often going 40-metres and beyond in search of their ever-dwindling catch. Many are killed or crippled by decompression sickness.

There are sustainable alternatives - consumers can download apps that offer guidance on sourcing fish that’s sustainably caught. The LRFFT offers virtually no sustainable options however, due to byzantine and secretive supply chains and aggressive monopolies.

The study includes a number of recommendations for government to play its part by including stronger regulations to crack down on the rampant illegal trade. Traders and retailers meanwhile are encouraged to make traceability a priority.

“We are not talking about not eating fish at all,” says Dr Sadovy. “What we are talking about is not eating so many wild fish that we destroy their populations. “We need to know where seafood comes from, that it’s legally sourced, safe to eat, and that it is sustainable”.

This article titled "Report warns of dire future for Coral Triangle reef fish" was written by , for theguardian.com on Saturday 10 February 2018 12.23pm

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