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A large Napoleon wrasse in a display tank awaits its fate in a seafood restaurant on mainland China.
Photo : Courtesy of WildAid

February 15, 2004
The Trade in Live Reef Fish for Food - Part 1
Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

The trade in live reef fish for food Part I.

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in the Maldives.

These days, we keep finding ourselves face to face with the unquenchable appetite in many parts of Asia for rare and exotic animals and their body parts. There are markets for shark fins, rhino horn, tiger penises, bear gall bladders, and bear's paws to name but a few. Such markets have driven many species to the verge of extinction.

There is another trade that is on the increase, which procures live fish from Indo-Pacific coral reefs Only a few wealthy individuals in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan can afford such luxuries, and their greed and ignorance is driving several species of wrasse and grouper, towards extinction.

In Hong Kong and Singapore, coral reef fish are imported and kept alive until they are cooked. They presumably suffer appallingly before they are killed, as do all reef fish kept in crowded market conditions. Hong Kong is the world's largest importer of live reef fish. Its population consumes 25,000 tonnes per year, 5,000 tonnes of which is exported to Mainland China where demand is on the increase. The trade in Hong Kong is worth over US$500 Million per year.

Grouper and wrasse on display at the entrance to the 'Unique Seafood' restaurant in Singapore. Patrons select the live fish they would like to have cooked for their maincourse. The increasing scarcity of Napoleon wrasse makes them a much sought after delicacy.
Photo : Chris Johnson

Besides threatening several reef species with extinction, reef fish food traders are destroying the world's remaining coral reefs by using sodium cyanide to catch fish. Cyanide indiscriminately kills corals, invertebrates and non-target fish and turns healthy coral reefs into underwater wastelands. Nearly two-thirds of the live reef fish sold in restaurants in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore are captured using this method. According to WWF Hong Kong, over 6,000 cyanide divers squirt 150,000 kilograms of dissolved poison onto some 33 million coral heads annually.

The way cyanide fishing works is relatively simple. A target fish is located by a diver, which, when pursued, usually takes shelter among coral heads. Poison cyanide is then pumped into the reef crevices, paralysing the fish. Large stunned fish can often survive the long journey to the market, but the smaller reef fish die immediately. Sedated wrasse and grouper usually stay put, so that the fishers rip away the surrounding coral heads to retrieve their prize. They drive a hook through the soft, fleshy lips of the live fish and pull it to the surface where it is held in a saltwater tank until ready for shipping.

Most of those who satisfy the market demand are poverty-stricken fisherman who risk their lives and kill their reefs with cyanide as they hunt for wrasse and grouper. No one bothers to explain to these divers the safety procedures necessary to keep them healthy, and many have died plying this illegal trade.

What drives this market is consumers who are willing to pay over $80 a pound for certain fishes. A Napoleon wrasse the size of a dinner plate can fetch more than US$1,000. The ultimate indulgence is a plate of Napoleon wrasse lips. When closing a business deal, affluent Asians eat only parts of fish, usually the lips or cheeks. A single pair of wrasse lips costs $250; an entire plate costs a fortune. In many Asian cultures if you have the money, you automatically assume the privilege to taste what you like, and the rarer it is the more you pay (prestige is associated with the exotic and rare).

By the mid 1990's, Napoleon wrasse became the most sought-after reef fish in the world. In South East Asia populations are already extinct on many reefs. In a few fragmented populations a few large Napoleon Wrasse still survive. These include Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Australia's Great Barrier Reef and here in the Maldives where the crew enjoyed the privilege of diving with them.

Odyssey crew diving with a Napoleon wrasse in the Maldives.
Photo : Genevieve Johnson

Mark Preedy - RV ODYSSEY Captain

    "From the moment we entered the water the vibrant colours and abundance of fish, brought the biggest smile to my face. Then I noticed, amongst the backdrop of wonderfully coloured fan corals, the charismatic Napoleon Wrasse, who had an air of grandeur and splendour about him making the dive complete before it even started."

Genevieve Johnson

In the 70's and 80's, cyanide fishing caused such extensive destruction that many reefs in the Philippines and Indonesia were fished bare and are now lifeless waste lands. Today traders are increasingly turning to remote Pacific and Indian Ocean archipelagos to procure the choicest fish.

As Fisherman began to radiate farther outward, they invaded the coral wildernesses of Papua New Guinea, Palau, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and the Marshall Islands. Hong Kong boats have taken what they want by first asking permission from villages to use the reef. They secure access to it with bribery and the promise of employment for young men. They then question the locals endlessly about spawning areas and seasons, and once the Hong Kong fisherman have found out where the fish breed, they drop the locals.

In 1993 the fishery travelled west for 3,000 miles, all the way to the Maldives. Here, even though the Maldives banned all exports of Napoleon Wrasse there were within a year, signs of collapse in some populations. Regulations are strict in the Maldives, and three Hong Kong cyanide boats have been caught poaching within the archipelago.


The crew of the Odyssey would like to thank Victor Wu of WildAid for the photo of a Napoleon wrasse in China.

Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

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