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Appetite For Reef Fish Devastating Coral Triangle

January 20, 2009

The growing appetite for live reef fish throughout Southeast Asia is devastating fish populations in the protected Coral Triangle, which supports 75 percent of the world’s coral species and contains the richest ocean diversity anywhere on the globe. 

Spawning of reef fish in this marine area has dropped 79 percent over the past 5 to 20 years, depending on location, according to a recent report in the scientific journal Conservation Biology.  Overfishing, especially of spawning aggregations that occur when some species of reef fish congregate in great numbers in one place to reproduce, may be the underlying reason, said Yvonne Sadovy, a biologist at the University of Hong Kong.  Sadovy co-wrote the report along with scientists from Australia, the United States, Hong Kong and Palau.

The report’s conclusions were based on the first global database on the occurrence, history and management of spawning aggregations, she said.  The report includes data from 29 countries or territories along with interviews with more than 300 commercial and subsistence fishers in Asia and the western Pacific from 2002 to 2006.

“The Coral Triangle has relatively few spawning aggregations reported in the communities we went to,” Dr. Sadovy told the New York Times.

“We think that this might be due to the more heavily fished (overall) condition of reef fisheries in many parts of the Coral Triangle, where there is uncontrolled fishing and high demand for live groupers for the international live fish trade.”

Indeed, roughly 30 percent of the species mentioned in the report are sold in Asian markets.

Hong Kong has been ground zero for the live fish trade since the 1980s.  According to figures from the Worldwide Fund for Nature, which monitors the market, the trade has expanded significantly during the last decade to an $810 million business. 

Growing wealth in mainland China may also be a contributing factor to the rise in the trade. Indeed, appetite for exotic fish is especially high in Shanghai and Beijing. Destinations popular with Chinese tourists are also seeing an rise in demand. And “eating tourism” is thriving lately in Kota Kinabalu (K.K.), a long-time attraction for Chinese visitors. Angela Lim, the fund’s communications director for the Live Reef Trade Initiative, said that’s primarily because live reef fish cost 60 percent less there than in Hong Kong.

Even locals unaffiliated with the tourist trade are aware of the spike. Across the street from the Port View, a popular restaurant on the northeast tip of Borneo in Malaysia’s Sabah province,  Malays at the famous Night Market are in awe of Chinese tourists who shell out “a thousand ringgits[$280] a week just eating fish.”  

Grouper is by far the most popular, and endangered, of the reef fish. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature 2008 Red List, an annual compilation of endangered species around the globe, 26 percent of the world’s 161 species are threatened or near threatened.

Groupers, with life spans of up to four decades, can grow to eight feet in the wild. After sexual maturity, female groupers are capable of changing into males, a process called protogyny, to compensate for population imbalances.   However, since groupers take five years to mature, most are removed from the water long before that time.  They typically grow to market size in tanks and on dinner plates before they are able to reproduce.

Geoffrey Muldoon, director of the fund’s live fish trade program, told the New York Times that the live trade was primarily responsible for “the removal of juvenile or undersize and sexually immature fish.”

The fund’s live fish trade initiative seeks to manage the Coral Triangle with the six countries that share its waters “” Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and East Timor. It’s not a simple task in a region where “fish bombing” with dynamite or cyanide is commonplace, and where there is weak enforcement of existing protected zones.

The organization is helping create the area’s first commercial fishing trade organization to set standards for sustainable practices.  Preliminary discussions between representatives of industry and government are now  being planned.

Dr. Sadovy suggested that spawning aggregations be seen as protected events, rather than opportunities to easily catch the fish.  This has been done in Bristol Bay, Alaska with salmon, and other species have similar protections.

“Colonies of seabirds were once exploited heavily and are now protected,”  Dr. Sadovy, who also serves as director of the Society for the Conservation of Reef Fish Aggregations,  told the New York times.

“Special feeding or breeding places are now routinely protected on land for many species, because of the recognition that animals are vulnerable at this time or that their aggregated state is very important for their biology.”

“From a very practical perspective, loss of the aggregations ultimately means loss of the associated fishery, so it makes good practical sense to change our attitude,” she said.

Image Courtesy WWF

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