The Asian craving for a particular reef fish is emptying our seas.

Friday, July 25, 2008

HUNDREDS of fish cages bob up and down in the waters of Marudu Bay, off Kudat in Sabah. In these cages are sought-after marine delicacies such as groupers, lobsters and crabs, as well as a staggering number of humphead wrasses.

From the massive number of humpheads holed up in the floating pens, it is impossible to tell that this is a fish species classed as “endangered” by the IUCN-World Conservation Union and whose trade is governed by the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).
A growing appetite for humphead wrasses (or Napoleon wrasse) has spelt doom for this species, whose numbers in the wild, already small, are being depleted further.

In Kudat, like in the Sabahan coastal towns of Tawau, Sandakan and Lahad Datu, fishermen continue to haul in humpheads (Cheilinus undulatus). Several times a week, these fish and the popular groupers, are bundled alive into air-filled plastic bags which are then packed into polystyrene boxes, transported to Kota Kinabalu, and sent on the evening flight to Hong Kong or Singapore. It is a time-perfected technique which gets seafood, alive and swimming, into restaurants.

Sabah exported 27,000 tails of humphead last year – an alarming figure since scientists believe wild humphead stocks in Sabah waters are almost exhausted and aggressive fishing can only doom the species.

Once a normal table fish, humpheads (or su mei) somehow acquired a luxury tag in the early 1990s. Those who want to flaunt their wealth and success would indulge in this pricey fish in restaurants in Hong Kong, Singapore, China and Malaysia. What used to sell for RM30 a kg in 1980 now goes for RM250 to RM300 a kg. Soon a scramble for the fish ensued.

Before long, fears of over-fishing pushed humpheads onto Appendix II of Cites in October 2004 – the first coral reef fish to be listed. Everyone thought all would be well since trade would now be controlled through import and export permits.

On the contrary, the Cites listing has done little for humpheads in Sabah as trade quotas remain high. Many are stumped by the export ration set by Sabah Fisheries Department last February – a monthly 200 tails for each of the 19 exporters. This works out to 45,600 tails annually, a figure deemed excessive by many, considering that it is five times Indonesia’s annual quota of 8,900 tails.

“There is concern over how the export quota was set as the amount of humphead wrasse exported last year is even higher than that before the Cites listing,” says Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA) senior researcher Tan Kim Hooi, who has written a policy document on humphead wrasse fisheries.

Doubts also arose over the scientific rationale behind the quota. A Cites Appendix II listing requires a non-detrimental finding (NDF) study to determine that trade will not threaten survival of the species. This study is only now being done.

Sabah Fisheries, World Wide Fund for Nature and wildlife trade monitoring body, Traffic, are assessing wild humphead populations in Pulau Lankayan, Kudat and Semporna. They are expected to recommend a new export quota when the present one expires in June.

Dwindling stocks

There are already signs that Asians’ taste for steamed su mei is depleting wild stocks.

“Sabah’s export of the high-value fish last year, although high, was just over half of the allowable quota. This can mean two things – either humphead populations are not really that big or the species has been over-fished,” says Tan.

Also, Sabahan fishermen and traders all tell the same tale about the fish they call mameng: the catch has dropped as have fish sizes, when compared to the 90s.

“Ten years ago, I can get several fish of 10kg to 15kg in a week. Now, not even one in a month,” says Kudat fish trader Wong Sin Hin. Today, the harvest is mostly juvenile fish which have to be fattened up in pens over three months or more, to reach the preferred plate size of 500g to 1kg (about 30-40cm in length) before shipment.
Hundreds of fish cages bobbing up and down in the waters of Marudu Bay, off Kudat in Sabah. In these cages are sought-after marine delicacies such as groupers, lobsters and crabs as well as a staggering number of humpheads. These fish will be exported live to Hong Kong and Singapore.

Marine scientist Dr Steve Oakley warns that netting young fish before they have had a chance to breed will curtail future stocks of the species. Insisting on size restrictions for humphead harvests, he says breeding adult fish should be left in the sea. Better yet, he adds, humphead fisheries should be closed until it can be proven sustainable.

Oakley, whose group the Tropical Research And Conservation Centre (Tracc) has surveyed reefs in Sabah and Sarawak, believes humpheads are locally extinct over most of the South China Sea. Viable breeding populations exist in two islands protected by dive tourism: Sipadan and Layang-Layang. Another healthy group exists off Brunei – but only because it is within the Champion oil field, a protected “no fishing” zone. Tracc surveys of Layang-Layang between 1996 and 2002 found a big humphead population of 300 females, 21 males and 100 sub-adults. However, the fish were not seen last year. The reason, Oakley fears, could be because a Chinese vessel was allowed to fish there.

For now, Sabah’s humphead catch figures remain impressive only because stocks are coming from the Philippines, which does not trade in the fish. Traders and fishermen in Kudat attest to this and the fact that Filipino fishers use cyanide to stun the fish, a destructive fishing method that can kill them as well as harm other marine life and the fragile coral reef habitat.

Lax enforcement, together with difficulties in patrolling Sabah’s 1,600km of coastline and extensive fishing area of 51,360 sq km, share the blame for the prevalent fish smuggling.

As humpheads from foreign waters are traded as Sabah’s, Tan of Mima says a generous export quota will deplete humphead stocks not only in Malaysian waters, but also in Indonesia and the Philippines. Already, high demand and lucrative prices have fuelled poaching.

In December 2006, a Chinese vessel was detained at Tubbataha Marine Park in Palawan, the Philippines, with 800 live fish onboard, including 300 humpheads. In the same year, the Bunaken Marine Park in northern Sulawesi saw three cases of poaching involving 207, 450 and 36 humpheads.

Indonesia had set an annual export of 8,000 tails in 2005 but revised it to 8,900 tails last year, and only allows harvest from specified areas, namely Papua, Maluku and Nusa Tenggara.