If you live in Hong Kong or in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, you can choose the fish you want to eat at a restaurant from a tank full of living, swimming fish. It will probably be a grouper, and it will be very expensive, perhaps $300 a plate, but it will be fresh, and it will taste good.
Groupers (“coral trout”) at a restaurant in Shanghai (tracc-borneo.org)
Though the Live Reef Fish Food Trade started slowly in the 1970s, it has exploded in the past decade. It is causing extraordinary damage to coral reefs.
The target species are mostly groupers, snappers and wrasses. They are caught as adults and shipped to the restaurants, or they are caught as juveniles and kept in cages, fed small reef fish until they are plate sized, and then shipped to the restaurants.
They come from the Coral Triangle area, the region of the tropical Pacific with the greatest density of coral reefs. They are caught by hand, but usually after they are stunned by dynamite (illegal everywhere) or by cyanide poisoning (also illegal everywhere).
The Coral Triangle, including the reefs of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, PNG and Solomon Islands. (natureconservancy.org)
A masked diver applies cyanide to part of a reef in hopes of finding a few young groupers among the stunned fish (fishchannel.com)
Another fisherman detonates dynamite to stun fish (turingfoundation.org)
As reefs are stripped of the fish, the collectors go ever farther away – an expansion that has extended into the Indian Ocean and through the South Pacific.
Fish are collected from ever further sources as reefs are serially over-fished. (wwf.panda.org
Fishing has been ‘open access’, which essentially means few regulations, and where any exist, little enforcement exists. The catch is largely illegal, unregulated, and under-reported (the discouraging IUU designation).
Three countries provide most (but not all) of the fish – Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. China (including Hong Kong) is the single major market and it continues to expand rapidly: a novel, good tasting, living grouper is a fine luxury meal in a newly affluent society.
Fish are shipped to Hong Kong, and then distributed to other cities in southern China (sciencedirect.com)
Groupers are the main victims. They live for a few decades, they grow relatively slowly, they don’t mature until they are relatively large and 5-10 years old, they don’t swim fast making them easy for human divers to approach, and they spawn in aggregations in predictable places, making it even easier to find and catch them. Targeting juveniles and using destructive fishing techniques should have disappeared decades ago yet they are flourishing in the current hunt.
A tiger grouper, now listed by IUCN as threatened or endangered (bergoiata.org)
Territorial conflicts have arisen among all of the players – between local fishermen and outsiders, between local and state fishers and agencies, between communities and between states, between conservationists and the need for jobs. And as usual, despite the market value of the fish, the fishers/divers are paid little.
This is a classic boom-and-bust scenario. Given the lucrative and growing market in China, the ease of capturing the fish, the lack of both regulations and enforcement, a projected demand that far exceeds the projected supply, and inadequate knowledge of the biology of the species, groupers in the region are declining rapidly to extinction.
Certainly there are efforts to underway to protect the fish and regulate the fishing. In February 2013 government representatives of the six Coral Triangle nations met with those from a few SE Asian countries to address the threats and propose more effective management and sustainable trade in living reef fish. They proposed the development of marine protected areas to protect spawning aggregations, accreditation procedures for fishermen, and methods to detect cyanide in fish in order to prohibit its use. They addressed the issues of capture of juveniles for grow-out farms, and the capture of feed fish for the groupers that would otherwise be food for fish communities on the reefs. Worthwhile initiatives that may be too late.
Perhaps groupers are just unlucky, carrying the wrong suite of characteristics to survive unregulated human greed and predation. But that’s an inadequate conclusion. The ‘illusion of plenty’ has been dispelled in many parts of the world, and it needs to be dispelled in the Coral Triangle nations and communities. Governments and NGOs can do a lot to change perceptions and habits.
A goliath grouper, one of the largest species, easy to approach and photograph, easy to capture (thebuzzmedia.com)
At the same time China is a huge and voracious market, perhaps insatiable. If a lack of eco-consciousness is also driving the desire for live reef fish in the restaurants, then it too can change.
But this is much more than just another sad example if boom-and-bust overfishing. Coral reefs are also under increasing stress from climate change, and the community disruption and damage resulting from the Live Reef Fish Food Trade will only increase their vulnerability.
The Live Reef Fish Food Trade is ethically wrong, environmentally catastrophic, and quite unnecessary. If all participants truly understood the impact it is having, surely they would agree to end it.