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A mature Napoleon wrasse swims over a reef. A full grown fish can reach 7 feet in length, weigh in excess of 400 pounds and live for over 100 years.
Photo : Genevieve Johnson

February 27, 2004
The Trade in Live Reef Fish for Food - Part 2
Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

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

For those at the top end of the live, reef-fish food trade the market is outrageously lucrative and the enormous sums of money involved make the risk of being caught well worth it. Often fines are so small in relation to profits, that punishment is more like paying a 'tax.' (The offender can still make a profit on his merchandise.) As long as there is a demand, the ruthless fish traders will stop at nothing, and for such people it is particularly profitable to catch the last individual of a species.

A Hong Kong reef fish market trader interviewed by Carl Safina in his book "Song for the Blue Ocean" explained why this business is unlikely to stop anytime soon.

    "It is like cocaine, you can get three hundred US dollars for a single Napoleon wrasse. With fleets from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines carrying drums of cyanide, this is big business. Huge money is involved, attracting some bad people. And the average Chinese, the last thing they are thinking about is the health of coral reefs in other countries."
    -Proprietor, Red Coral Marine Reef fish supplier.

For communities that depend on reefs for their livelihoods the damage caused by this trade has long term implications-their natural resources are being mined and laid to waste. Research shows that reefs take decades to recover and that recovery is a process that can only happen under ideal conditions.

A possible solution to this problem is fish farming. In fact, by the mid 1990's it supplied one third of the world's live reef fishes. However most reef fishes, particularly those most sought after, cannot yet be bred in captivity. This includes the Napoleon wrasse, a magnificent fish that can grow to a length of over seven feet, weigh in excess of four hundred pounds and live for more than a century. Yet not a single Napoleon Wrasse has ever spawned in captivity. Virtually nothing is known of their reproductive biology. A single specimen at Hong Kong's Ocean Park took nearly seven years to grow from one to seventy pounds and he was well fed. It seems unlikely that we can count on aquaculture to supply the live food fish trade.

Even if it were possible to breed the wrasse and grouper species most in demand, consumers in South East Asia still prefer, and will pay more for, wild caught animals - they regard the taste and texture as superior to farmed fish. This means that as long as there are still wild specimens to be had the demand will exist.

If they are to be saved from extinction and the reefs protected from destruction by cyanide poisoning, the most obvious course of action is to make the sale of threatened species, like the Napoleon Wrasse, illegal. However, despite good intentions, the problem is not currently addressed adequately at the source. Past proposals to have the Napoleon wrasse listed under CITES (the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species) have been defeated.

Most efforts, including research, education and the establishment of parks, have failed to save either the fish or the reefs. The focus of conservation efforts must be directed to benefit the local community. Protection cannot exist without local communities backing it.

Strict laws and enforcement in the Maldives protect reef fish, ensuring divers have the opportunity to swim with these rare creatures. Odyssey crewmembers, Bob Wallace and John Payne enjoy a dive off South Male atoll.
Photo : Genevieve Johnson

What is desperately needed is marine tourism, including dive boats, resort operators and marine education programs to involve locals in the industry, ensuring that the community receives direct economic benefits from the protected areas in which they live. As Carl Safina has pointed out: "You could control all the cyanide fishing at the final destination, by chemically screening for cyanide caught fish. Perhaps the US, the largest market in the world for aquarium fishes could set the example." This is an objective worth working for.

Protection of reef fish species will further develop eco-tourism. This is already happening in the Maldives where the country's main income is derived from the tourist dollar. Tourists will pay a lot to dive on protected reefs where they can have memorable interactions with charismatic but increasingly rare, large grouper and wrasse.

As Carl Safina has said -

    "Don't think the answer is banning these things, (sodium cyanide and explosives) they are already illegal in most places. The problem is detection, enforcement. The problem is apathy, ignorance. The problem is poverty, hunger. The problem is too many hungry mouths."


  • Carl Safina - Song for the Blue Ocean. Henry Holt and Company, 1997.
  • The Society for the Conservation of Reef Fish Aggregations
    - The Hong Kong Trade in Live Reef Fish for food. Report by TRAFFIC East Asia and WWF Hong Kong - 17 June, 1999.


Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

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