Dinner anyone? Endangered Humphead wrasse for sale!

Female humphead wrasse on Sipadan
In Jan 2016, we have just surveyed all the known live fish trade holding tanks and there are approximately 126 individual Humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) of sizes from 20-60cm for sale in all the live fish cages close to Semporna.

Really this shocking for 2 reasons.:-  1 there should be many more fish when the wholesale price is US$50 (Rm200) per kilo.  2 There should not be any of these fish for sale. The species is classed as endangered by the IUCN Red list Endangered A2bd+3bd
and protected from export by Malaysian fisheries.  BUT there is no protection within the country.

Malaysians would not eat tigers, elephants or orang utans but endangered marine life :- fish, shark or ray is obviously acceptable

The IUCN red list justification and TRACC observations suggests that the effort from many thousands of fishers results in occasional catches of a few individuals each month or even each year, (IUCN Red list 2016).  The current population of juveniles in fish cages is thought to represent many thousands of hours of fishers searching reefs to catch and remove the last few individuals.

Adult male Humphead wrasse can exceed 1.5m (6ft).
The fish is female until it reaches around 1m
and then it changes sex to become male.
There are only a few of these fish left, Malaysia is proud of its status as a part of the Coral Triangle yet the biggest fish on the reefs is being allowed to go extinct with no attempt at protection.

Between 1996 and 2000, TRACC marine surveys of North Borneo (Sarawak, Sabah & Brunei) spent over 5000 hours underwater. Of 365 sites surveyed, only 11 individuals of the species were found on reefs that were not totally protected. The surveys determined that there were 3 spawning aggregation sites for Humphead wrasse in Sabah (Pulau Layang Layang, Sipadan and Balambangan island)).  A fourth aggregation site was suspected but no breeding activity was seen.
Fishermen interviews and market survey information in 2003 suggested that historically there were more than 50 spawning sites around the coast.

Where have all these fish gone?

Studies on healthy reefs have shown that there are normally 10-20 individuals in each hectare (10,000m2) of reef.  In Semporna district alone the unfished population was probably 350 X 100 x 10 = 350,000 fish (reef area sq km, hectares in 1 sq km and 10 fish).  The population now is less than 1000 so 349,000 fish from Semporna alone have been killed.  That is a very serious measure of overfishing; 349 killed 1 alive!.

Big female fish with no hump.
A re-survey for sharks and other large fish in 2011-2013, with over 10,000 survey hours suggested that only one Humphead wrasse spawning aggregation site at Sipadan MPA was still functional. The populations in Layang Layang and Balambangan have been seriously reduced and we could find no evidence of spawning.  There is however a possibility that SIMCA - Lankayan island has been protected and may have developed a breeding population.  Additional reef surveys by WWF 2009 and TRACC 2013 showed that HHW were effectively extinct in the Semporna region.

Even though scientific surveys could find no Humphead wrasse the price is so high (RM200/kg) that the fishing continues. Small numbers of small HHW (15-25cm) are caught occasionally around the Sabah coast ((where are their parents???)) and these baby fish are all kept alive and transferred to floating fish cages for on-growing and eventual sale to the live fish trade.

TRACC purchased 6 individuals in 2013 (more) and 4 individuals in 2015 from the live fish trade aquaculture cages.  These small individuals (approx 20-25cm) were released back into the wild on Pom Pom Island which is a community protected area.  The rescued fish are seen on a regular basis and are clearly growing.  None of the fish are reproductive size in Jan 2016.

The species is a charismatic icon for healthy reefs,  every book on coral reefs includes photos of Humphead wrasse.  Is the legacy of our generation that we took photos but ate all the Humphead wrasse to extinction?

There are a few of these fish left that have not been eaten, we hope to use the remnant population to repopulate an area, advocate for more effective MPA and create an action leading to a policy change so that the species is totally protected under Malaysian law.

Talk to us if you want to rescue a humphead wrasse which we will release and care for.  Of course we would like you to come and dive to see your fish.  :-)

We have also rescued sharks from the fishermen and will buy more in 2016 -->>more info

If you want to help with any marine conservation activity, please check our website or e-mail info@tracc-borneo.org

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