- High demand for wild-caught reef fish from Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia to stock upscale restaurants in East Asia could be driving overfishing and depletion of fish stocks, export trends indicate.
- To ease the strain on wild fish populations, countries started adopting fish-farming practices in which they raise wild-caught grouper species in pens — a practice that is far from sustainable, a marine expert says.
- Government attempts to regulate the trade by imposing size limits and closed fishing seasons have largely fallen short, experts say.
- The COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest in Hong Kong, the prime market for the live reef food fish trade, have driven demand down, providing a window to aid the recovery of species like the leopard coral trout.
PALAWAN, Philippines — On a sunny June morning in Taytay Bay, Jorophy Mahusay stands on a floating cage as he throws fish meal into the azure waters below, where his leopard coral trout congregate. “I feed them twice a week,” he says as he glances at the bright red-orange fish, known locally as suno, with electric-blue dots all over their bodies.
Mahusay is one of the more than 200 traders in the Philippine island province of Palawan engaged in mariculture, a type of aquaculture where wild-caught fish are grown in enclosed pens. “I buy wild-caught suno juveniles from hook-and-line fishers and then grow the fish in a cage until such time they reach the marketable plate size,” he tells Mongabay.
One of the Philippines’ richest fishing grounds, Palawan in the country’s western region is the capital of the live reef food fish trade, or LRFFT, producing 70% of the nation’s exports of live reef fish. These include species like the leopard coral trout (Plectropomus leopardus), humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) and bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum), which are sought-after and valued in this industry.
In the wild, reef fish like the humphead wrasse and parrotfish can grow up to 2 meters (6.5 feet) in length and live up to 30 years. But fishers tend to catch them while they’re still at juvenile size, before they reach full maturity.
“At plate size, these fish species are not yet sexually mature,” marine biologist Ditto dela Rosa of the Haribon Foundation, a conservation NGO, tells Mongabay. “As a general rule in ecology, if a species is large-bodied, it’s usually slow-growing, and if it’s slow-growing, it’s slow to reach sexual maturity. If the fishing of these species is not regulated, the population will die out.”
With both the humphead wrasse and the bumphead parrotfish categorized as threatened on the IUCN Red List, and some countries banning the fishing and export of humphead wrasse, the industry’s focus has shifted to the leopard coral trout.
Like other bigger reef species, leopard coral trout can live up to 26 years. But these crimson groupers are fast-growing and fast-maturing: in two to three years, they’re ready to spawn. This means leopard coral trout can withstand greater fishing pressure, according to an International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) report. It’s also one of the 20 most commonly traded grouper species.
Its price depends on taste, texture, availability, and the time of year. Prices soar during festive periods when demand peaks. For the leopard coral trout, 500 grams to 1 kilogram (1.1 to 2.2 pounds) is the preferred trade size — it’s the perfect fit for a plate. The bigger the fish, typically, the lower the price.
Traders like Mahusay earn up to 2,500 pesos ($50) for every kilo of leopard coral trout they sell. In the course of a year they can earn nearly 2.6 million pesos ($52,000). In Hong Kong, the fish can fetch as much as $300 per kilo.
This profitable business benefiting Mahusay and thousands of others wouldn’t be possible if not for Hong Kong, the global LRFFT hub, which does annual trade valued at more than $1 billion. Since the trade started half a century ago, it has been linked to overfishing and reef depletion in each new hotspot it engulfs, leaving countries with poor marine governance struggling with diminishing resources even as they partake in a global industry with opaque trade chains.
Observing a southern Chinese culinary tradition, Hong Kong’s high-end restaurants keep reef fish alive in aquariums. Diners, typically affluent, pick them out, and the fish are then scooped out, gutted and cooked. Hong Kong became an LRFFT player in the 1970s, with the trade booming over the following decades, before its own grouper stocks got depleted.
To meet existing and growing demand, the trade extended into the Indo-Pacific region, with Southeast Asian countries feeding Hong Kong’s live reef fish for food demand. Indonesia is currently the top grouper exporter, followed by the Philippines and Malaysia.
These three countries share the 900,000-square-kilometer (347,500-square-mile) marine area that makes up the Sulu-Sulawesi seascape located at the apex of the Coral Triangle, the heart of the world’s marine biodiversity. The Coral Triangle harbors 2,228 reef fish species, or 37% of the global total.
Smaller volumes are exported from Australia, the Maldives, Thailand and a few other countries in the Indo-Pacific region. All these reef fish-exporting countries work to satiate demand in Hong Kong, mainland China, Singapore and Taiwan.
“Overfishing appears to be more widespread as traders move into ever-new fishing grounds,” Yvonne Sadovy de Mitcheson, a marine biologist and professor at Hong Kong University (HKU), notes in her 2019 LRFFT report published this year by the ICRI, a global partnership aimed at preserving the world’s reefs.
But the demand has a catch: of the 167 grouper species on the IUCN Red List, 19 are already threatened with extinction, including the commonly traded squaretail coral grouper (Plectropomus areolatus), camouflage grouper (Epinephelus polyphekadion) and brown-marbled grouper (Epinephelus fuscoguttatus) — all listed as vulnerable.
The leopard coral trout’s conservation status is listed as being of least concern but experts say they believe overfishing can push it into the same worrisome conservation status as the other reef fish species.
In the recent ICRI report, key exporting countries have seen telltale signs of overfishing — declining capture size and catch rates, fishers moving farther and staying longer from shore to maintain catches, and commonly traded grouper species entering the red list — corroborated by several surveys, stock assessments, and export shipment data.
In the Philippines’ Palawan and in Malaysia’s Sabah state, fishers incentivized by this high-value, low-volume industry have resorted to ranching or cage farming to meet the demands and ease the burden on wild-caught fish populations.
But in practice, fishers who engage in ranching tend to capture fingerlings or buy them and raise the juvenile fish in cages only to sell them before the fish reach sexual maturity or are capable of breeding. This, in essence, is only as good as catching them in the wild.
“If you take a baby (juvenile fish) from the wild sea, from a wild population and you take many, where is the future of that population?” Sadovy says. It’s “a very bad practice” from a sustainability viewpoint, she says, as the wild populations will further drop when juveniles are fished out and grown in cages before they can spawn.
The leopard coral trout is a fish that eats smaller fish, and that means it plays an important role in keeping reef ecosystems in biological balance. But the unrelenting trade has taken large numbers of these top-level predators out of their habitats and into pens. Experts say this practice can threaten not only the fishing communities but also the resilience of reef ecosystems.
“Excessive juvenile capture fisheries (for grow out) could readily erode the reproductive capacity of species since juveniles removed from the wild cannot reproduce,” writes Sadovy, who co-chairs the IUCN Grouper and Wrasse Specialist Group.
The Maldives and Australia are exceptions to this practice. Overall, Australia has successfully sustained its leopard coral trout fishery through management, including monitoring its exports and capture, and implementing species-specific size limits matched with strong law enforcement, according to the 2019 ICRI report.
Ranching or capture-based aquaculture that raises wild-caught fingerlings in captivity, however, is widely practiced in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia as a solution to the grouper overfishing.
In Palawan, artisanal fishers use hooks and lines to catch juvenile groupers not smaller than the legal minimum limit of 250 grams (9 ounces), which they eventually sell to local traders. These traders own cages where they raise and feed the fish until they reach market size and can be sold to exporters. In Palawan, these traders are based in the town of Coron, about 140 kilometers (90 miles) north of Taytay Bay.
This ranching practice started in Palawan in the early 2000s, but was already controversial; a 2010 case study published in Marine Policy says it “could hasten the collapse of grouper stocks” considering “the absence of full-cycle aquaculture.”
But whether hatching fish in captivity or raising wild-caught fingerlings in cages — often lumped under the general term of mariculture — Sadovy says the practice doesn’t solve the problem of there being fewer groupers in the wild, and won’t save the industry in the long run. Overfishing, the main driver of collapsing grouper stocks, doesn’t end when fish farming begins, Sadovy says.
“Mariculture is not necessarily good; it doesn’t mean ‘sustainable,” she says. “When mariculture starts or increases, fishing does not decrease, both are done and fishing pressure can actually increase.” Besides, she says, wild-sourced fish are preferred in the trade, as consumers believe they are “tastier and safer,” and therefore worth more than farmed fish.
Undervalued, delayed policies
Exporting countries don’t manage their reef fisheries as well as they do their other fisheries, such as tuna, which has a much higher perceived economic value, Sadovy says. This is because “the exporters undervalue the fish and so the government doesn’t realize how valuable this trade is,” she says.
The live reef food fish trade is small by global fishery standards, estimated at 20,000 to 30,000 metric tons annually and involving about 30,000 fishers and 100 exporters from six key exporting countries. Yet it remains a high-earning industry, even though little of this income reaches the public treasury.
“Much of the high worth of the lucrative live reef export trade is leaving source countries undeclared in terms of value, or unrecognized, and much may be sometimes underreported in terms of volume,” Sadovy says.
Experts attribute this underreporting to “sparse documentation” and “opaqueness in export trade chains.” Since exporters are under-declaring the haul by at least three to five times the correct estimated export value per ton, source countries’ potential income from this industry that could be used to manage overfished areas is substantially reduced.
“Unchecked, the trade leaves behind it a trail of overfished resources with long-term negative implications for local fisheries, reefs and fishing communities,” Sadovy says.
With the exception of Australia, exporting countries in the Indo-Pacific have limited enforcement capacity, lack of catch and export quotas, and poor controls or inspections of exports’ declared volume and value. There are also no limits on numbers of fishers or traders, and no certification or traceability systems — factors that threaten the trade’s sustainability, the 2019 ICRI report notes.
There are, however, attempts to manage the trade: Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia have permitting systems, and conduct stock assessments and implement gear controls, including bans on the use of cyanide and compressed air for fishing.
At the national level, the Philippine government proposes regulating this industry through a policy that aims to address the “widespread” catching of wild juvenile groupers, according to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. To ensure only mature fish are caught for selling, the bureau wants to impose size limits for 26 grouper species found in the country’s waters.
This development comes after almost four decades of the live reef food fish trade in the Philippines, which has put pressure on its grouper fishery; live reef fish are the No. 3 most exported fishery commodity, behind tuna and seaweed. The bureau’s proposal is subject to final consultation before finalization and presentation to the National Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council for endorsement.
At the local level, a similar regulation has already been in effect in Palawan since December 2014. It imposes a size restriction of 32-47.5 cm (13-19 inches) for catching and trading leopard coral trout. Like in Indonesia and Australia, which have some seasonal or spatial protections of spawning aggregations, Palawan seeks to implement a closed fishing season from March to May.
But local experts say it’s a misnomer: the proposed closed fishing season is not the most conducive for helping grouper populations recover. Studies have shown that the months of November to February see the highest reproduction activity among groupers, says John Pontillas, a marine policy specialist with the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development. This should be the closed season, he says, but it coincides with the period of high demand that peaks with the Lunar New Year.
Despite this, the Palawan grouper trade regulation has not been implemented; the resistance from provincial industry stakeholders forced the government to push back the implementation of the size limit and the closed fishing season several times.
Amid the delays, the fishing pressure is taking its toll on grouper stocks. Export volumes in 2013 reached 668 tons, and by 2018 had dropped to 303 tons. The decline in exports has not raised alarms yet, although experts point out that previous exports have already been exceeding the sustainable threshold at just less than 140 tons a year.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the global fish trade, including LRFFT. In Hong Kong, months of political unrest coupled with pandemic restrictions have delivered a tough blow to its once lively seafood restaurant industry catering mainly to moneyed tourists from mainland China.
“A lot of the shops are empty of live fish because there are no tourists, so the demand for live reef fish has declined a lot,” Sadovy says. Exporting live reef fish is difficult now, given the sharp reduction in the number of cargo flights and higher freight prices — factors that have throttled down on the supply chain.
Conservationists say the pandemic has opened a window of opportunity to turn the tide in favor of groupers, a slow-maturing and -reproducing species whose populations take at least 10 years to rebound. If the trade limitations persist for a long time, Sadovy says there could be positive impacts on recovering grouper stocks.
But any relief will be temporary without lasting policy changes, she says. “Obviously, there’s less fish being removed, but unless governments actually use this as an opportunity to increase their control on the trade, it’ll just go back to what it was before which was unsustainable.”
Back in Palawan, June marks the start of the open season for catching these lucrative crimson groupers. But Mahusay, like thousands of other fishers in the trade here, isn’t as optimistic as before.
“My regular Chinese buyer who exported live groupers to Hong Kong can’t be contacted anymore,” Mahusay says. “I guess it’s because there’s no market now.” For traders to break even or at least earn during the pandemic, he says, their last resort is to sell the groupers at a much lower price locally.
Sadovy de Mitcheson, Y. (2019). Live reef food fish trade: Undervalued, overfished and opportunities for change. International Coral Reef Initiative. Retrieved from https://www.icriforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/ICRI%20Live%20Reef%20Food%20Fish%20Report-44p-double_0.pdf.
Sadovy de Mitcheson, Y., Tam, I., Muldoon, G., Le Clue, S., Botsford, E., & Shea, S. (2017). The trade in live reef food fish — Going, going, gone. ADM Capital Foundation and the University of Hong Kong. Retrieved from https://www.admcf.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/20180201-Live-Reef-Food-Fish-Trade-Vol-1_Final.pdf.
Fabinyi, M., & Lui, N. (2014). Seafood banquets in Beijing: Consumer perspectives and implications for environmental sustainability. Conservation and Society, 12(2), 218-228. doi:10.4103/0972-4923.138423
Fabinyi, M., & Dalabajan, D. (2011). Policy and practice in the live reef fish for food trade: A case study from Palawan, Philippines. Marine Policy, 35(3), 371-378. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2010.11.001
Banner image of a leopard coral trout (Plectropomus leopardus), a reef fish species in the Coral Triangle. Image by Jan Massersmith via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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