Saturday, October 20, 2007

Save the Napoleon Wrasse

During our 2nd last day in Kota Kinabalu, we went to a nearby seafood restaurant for dinner (can’t remember the name of the restaurant). This is the type of restaurants whereby live seafood is being displayed for one to choose – from lobsters to prawns to fish. Then there was this secluded section whereby 2 few dozen fish lay hidden beneath layers of thick ice, presumably to keep them fresh. As my friends were taking orders, the captain recommended we try their ‘So Mei’ 苏眉鱼 of which then she cleared some of the ice to show us the fish.

I recognized the patterns of the fish immediately. It’s a Napoleon Wrasse.

As far as I know, Napoleon Wrasse is an endangered species.

I was prepared to object should my friends chose this fish, but luckily they opted for something else. I was clearly disturbed, although none of my friends could comprehend why I was so worked up over a dead fish.

Two months later, the image of the frozen ‘So Mei’ ready to be served is still vivid in my mind, which led me to write this post. I feel it is important to share this information for awareness and hopefully to gather support as well.

The Humphead Wrasse, also known as Napoleon, is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which means international trade is possible only with valid CITES permits. The CITES Appendix II listing helps supply and consumer countries to ensure that the trade in the species is both legal and sustainable.

Photo source : Flickr

Found on coral reefs across Southeast Asia, the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean, this distinctive species can grow to over two metres long, weigh up to 190kg and live for more than 30 years. The Napoleon wrasse is also known as a charming fish because it is very friendly, often allowing divers to stroke it. The experience shared by divers of having stroked a huge Napoleon Wrasse is priceless. The trade in this species, however, is selective; smaller sized individuals, including many juveniles, are preferred over full grown adults because the flesh is said to be more tender, and smaller fish are better suited to the restaurant trade that prefers to serve whole fish. The species is most typically traded live.

While is still legally permitted to harvest this fish (see above), the issue here is the rising demand outstrips supply of this reef fish. The largest demands come from Hong Kong, whereby the fish fetch about U$400 per kg. The high prices are not a result of any superb flavour or texture. Instead, eating this fish is seen as a status symbol – a representation of wealth. While the Napoleon Wrasse are so-called protected by law, this law is also easily broken. The lucrative price has led to many cases of illegal harvesting of this species.

The Napoleon Wrasse is not an easy fish to catch. As it refuses to take bait on hooks, the only sure-fire way of catching one is to blast it with cyanide bombs. While the poison does not kill the Napoleon wrasse -- it only stuns it for a few minutes -- the doses are large enough to drift for miles on the tide and kill smaller creatures.Furthermore, a stunned wrasse's natural instinct is to hide within coral gardens for protection. In response, the cyanide fishermen dive in and hack away at the fish's hiding places to get to them. As a result of satisfying someone’s taste for ‘So Mei’, many more lives were sacrificed.

In general fishermen hunt the smaller, immature Napoleon fish because, simply, they taste better. The larger ones are caught only to be put on display as trophies in cramped tanks outside restaurants in Hong Kong and China. This selective fishing means fewer of the species are growing to sexual maturity. Consequently fewer fry are being produced, further diminishing stocks.

While getting countries to join marine conservation is not an issue, it is the law enforcement that is problematic. I mentioned in an earlier post over the turtle massacre, similarly there were news about fishing boats with Napoleon Wrasse being detained by authorities. This is just one or two incidents, how many more such cases happen unnoticed?

While we can’t control what happens at sea, there’s only one reason the fishermen resort to continue this illegal activity – YOU, the consumer. It is the consumer who is generating the demand for the fisherman to catch the Napoleon Wrasse.

If you think it’s not difference anyway because if you don’t eat the fish, someone else will, I will ask you back this question: How are you going to explain to the future generation should the Napoleon Wrasse really became extinct because of our ignorance?

With this I appeal that you, the reader will take into consideration while ordering fish for dinner. If it is ‘So Mei’, chances are it is the Napoleon Wrasse. While we can’t tell whether this is harvested legally or not, the best is to stop ordering this fish altogether. If the demand stops, the fishing stops too.

Photo source :

Information and photos on this post are extracted from the following sources :

PBS - The Trade in Live Reef Fish for Food

Eating an Australian Icon

Hong Kong Hosts Global Campaign To Save Napoleon Fish From Its Waterloo

Illegal Fishing - Information

Save Napoleon

WWF's 10 Most Wanted Species

Preserving a Gentle Reef Fish


lemmonsea said...

Wow.. your interest is limitless!

Several years ago, my friend said that she was very shocked in her trip in Southern china.

In the street, people are selling a lot of weird animals, and they are yelling "No more this animal in the earth! It is the last animal if you can choose(to eat)!" to drag customers..:(

So sad world..

Anonymous said...

Do you happen to know where it got its name from, that is "napoleon"?