Humphead Wrasse: Amazing Reef Fish and High-price Delicacy

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The humphead wrasse is one of the giants of the reef. It has a massive forehead and can weigh as much as 180 kilograms (400 pounds) and reach lengths over two meters, but the average length is a little less than 1 meter.. They are docile creatures with a mouth and digestive track similar to those of a parrotfish. The bony plates in their throat are capable of crushing cowries shells, spiny sea urchins and other kinds of shellfish as well as coral. The "lips" of the humphead wrasse are considered a delicacy in Hong Kong, where they sell for hundreds of U.S. dollars a plate.

Also known as the Maori wrasse, Napoleon wrasse, Napoleon fish, Napoleonfish, so mei (Cantonese), mameng (Filipino), and merer (in the Pohnpeian language of Micronesia), the humphead wrasse is one of the most commonly seen large species of fish found in the Great Barrier Reef and reefs in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. They can be identified not only their forehead but also their thick “lips” and two black lines behind its eyes. Humphead wrasse are also one of the longest-living fish in Indo-Pacific reefs. There are many examples of ones that lived over 30 years of age. They are currently listed as an endangered species due primarily to being sought after as a delicacy and heavily fished. [Source: Great Barrier; Wikipedia]

The humphead wrasse is the largest living member of the wrasse family (Labridae). Males, typically are larger than females, which rarely grow larger than one meter. The fish’s color can vary between dull blue-green to more vibrant shades of green and purplish-blue. Adults are usually observed living singly, but are also seen in male/female pairs and in small groups.

Humphead wrasses can be found on the east coast of Africa around the mouth of the Red Sea and different places and in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Juveniles are usually found in shallow, sandy ranges bordering coral reef waters, while adults are found mostly in offshore and deeper areas of coral reefs, typically in outer-reef slopes and channels, but also in lagoons.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase ; Encyclopedia of Life ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute ; Cousteau Society ; Monterey Bay Aquarium ; MarineBio

Humphead Wrasse Characteristics, Behavior and Reproduction

Regarded as opportunistic predators, humphead wrasses feed primarily on invertebrates such as mollusks (particularly gastropods and bivalves), sea urchins (echinoids), crustaceans, segmented worms (annelids) and fish. Because many of their hide under the sand, wrasses may rely on fish excavators like stingrays, and excavate themselves by ejecting water to displace sand and nosing around for prey. Like many other wrasses, humphead wrasses often crack sea urchins by carrying them to a rock in their mouths and striking them against the rock with sideways head movements. They sometimes engage in cooperative hunting with the roving coral grouper. [Source: Wikipedia]

20120517-cleaning station Humphead_wrasse02_melb_aquarium.jpg
Humphead wrasse being cleaned by small cleaner wrasse
Adult humphead wrasses are commonly found on steep coral reef slopes, channel slopes, and lagoon reefs in water one to 100 meters (three to 330 feet) deep. They actively seek out branching hard and soft corals and seagrasses to settle in. Juveniles tend to prefer areas that camouflage them better such as among dense branching corals, bushy macroalgae or seagrasses. Large individual and adults prefer limited home ranges in more open habitat on the edges of reefs, channels and reef passes.

The humphead wrasse is long-lived, but has a very slow breeding rate. Individuals become sexually mature at five to seven years, and are known to live for around 30 years. They are protogynous hermaphrodites, with some becoming male at about 9 years old. The factors controlling the timing of sex change are not yet known. At certain times of year, adults move to the down-current end of the reef and form local spawning aggregations (groups). They likely do not travel very far for their spawning aggregations. The pelagic eggs and larvae ultimately settle on or near coral reef habitats. Eggs are 0.65 millimeters in diameter and spherical, with no pigment.

Endangered Humphead Wrasse

The humphead wrasse has been listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red list since 2004 and is listed in Appendix II of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that trade in the fish has to be monitored globally. The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service has classified the humphead wrasse as a species of concern — one about which it has concerns, but for which it has insufficient information to list under the Endangered Species Act. while the The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) advises people not to eat it.

The numbers of humphead wrasse have declined for a number of reasons, including: 1) Intensive, species-specific removal by the live reef food-fish trade throughout its core range in Southeast Asia; 2) Destructive fishing techniques, including bombs and cyanide; 3) Habitat loss and degradation; 4) Local consumption, and its perception as a delicacy to locals and tourists; 5) A developing export market for juveniles for the marine aquarium tradel 6) Lack of coordinated, consistent national and regional management; 7) Inadequate knowledge of the species; 8) Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; 9) Unsustainable and severe overfishing within the live reef food fish trade is the primary threat. [Source: Wikipedia]

Simon Parry wrote in the South China Morning Post: Because the Humphead wrasse is rare and matures slowly, the rampant trade, in mostly juvenile fish — which are either wild-caught or ranched (taken from the wild and grown in pens in coastal waters) — is putting the species in deepening peril. Environmentalists believe there should be a moratorium on its sale until a sustainable way can be found of supplying luxury demand without putting the fish, at further risk. [Source: Simon Parry, South China Morning Post, 8 Jun, 2019]

The declining Humphead wrasse population is part of a broader crisis in live reef food fish that threatens to see some popular species disappear within our lifetime. According to a report released in 2019 by Hong Kong University, wildlife trafficking concern group ADM Capital Foundation and the WWF. live-fish imports are around 50 percent under-reported and concludes that traders and carriers are exploiting a vacuum created by inadequate and outdated regulations, legal loopholes and lax law enforcement in Hong Kong.

The humphead wrasse is considered an umbrella species, which means many other species are sympatric with it and have much smaller ranges — thus the conservation of the humphead wrasse's habitat would benefit these other species as well. Understanding the concept of an umbrella species can lead to a better understanding of endangered species protection.

Dining on Humpback Wrasse

Humphead wrasse is highly prized as a delicacy and is culturally important as the food of kings and tribal leaders, particularly in western Pacific islands such as Palau, Fiji and the Cook Islands. Its lips are considered its most desirable part. [Source: Michael McCarthy, The Independent, September 25, 2004]

According to The Independent: The humphead wrasse provides some of Hong Kong's most expensive fish dishes, which, in a city with a strong tradition of luxury dining, is saying something. Caught on a Pacific coral reef and airfreighted alive to a restaurant tank in the Chinese city for special occasion dinners, its flesh can fetch as much as $175 — and that's US dollars — (£97) per kilogramme. [Source: Valerie Elliott, The Times, September 25, 2004]

Simon Parry wrote in the South China Morning Post: “The dinner bill for the two guests in the one-Michelin-starred Summer Palace restaurant, at the Island Shangri-La, came to HK$7,400 (US$940), and yet the diners’ verdict on the fish that was the centrepiece of their meal was well short of five stars. “It tasted a bit of gasoline,” one of them remarked. Days later, when they tucked into the same dish at the three-Michelin-starred T’ang Court, in Tsim Sha Tsui’s Langham Hotel, they were presented with a bill of close to HK$8,000. Their review, however, was even cooler. “Flat and bland,” the other diner concluded. “It was nothing special.” [Source: Simon Parry, South China Morning Post, June 9, 2019]

“Underwhelming as the dishes may have been, the fish served up at two of Hong Kong’s leading hotel restaurants was far from ordinary. The diners — independent environmental activists who prefer to remain anonymous — were feasting on humphead wrasse.

At T’ang Court, the two diners were ushered into a private dining room despite not having requested one, and at the Summer Palace the dish arrived “95 percent concealed in an excessive and abnormally thick layer of scallions [spring onions]”, the activists say, “likely so that other guests would not be able to identify the fish making its way from kitchen to table.”

The fish is “a favourite among moneyed diners in Hong Kong and mainland China, who are prepared to shell out up to HK$6,500 a kilo for live juvenile Humphead wrasse (called so mei locally) drawn from a diminishing stock in Indonesia, the only legal exporter of the species. The fish is also native to the waters of the Philippines and Sabah, Malaysia.

According to The Independent: The fishing method often used to catch humphead wrasse for restaurants is cyanide poisoning. This only stuns the humpheads but can have a devastating effect on other fish and on the coral. Also, the most prized fish are small ones — so that diners can have a whole fish on the plate — and this means that young fish are mostly being caught. Thus the wrasse population decline is hastened. [Source: Valerie Elliott, The Times, September 25 2004]

Do High Prices and Threaten Status Make Humpback Wrasse Dishes More Appealing?

Simon Parry wrote in the South China Morning Post: “The scarcity of the fish and its price tag of up to US$850 per kilo has only made it more appealing to those who can afford it. For University of Hong Kong marine biologist Yvonne Sadovy, one of the most disturbing elements when she learned of the restaurant investigation was the price the wrasse now has on its head. At the Summer Palace, the cost of the fish alone was HK$250 a tael for a 16-tael (600-gram) fish — HK$4,000 in total — while at T’ang Court, it was HK$180 a tael for a 28-tael fish, totalling HK$5,040. [Source: Simon Parry, South China Morning Post, June 9, 2019]

“The highest price I have heard of previously was US$600 a kilo in Beijing,” Sadovy says, pointing out that the HK$250-a-tael charged at the Summer Palace equated to about US$850 a kilo. “It is like the best beluga caviar. People pay very high prices and therefore traders have a very high incentive to go and get these products, whether it is caviar or Napoleon fish. Traders can make particularly high it remains appealing for them to continue sourcing Napoleons even if this might mean they sometimes must do so illegally.

Wealthy diners willing to pay HK$5,000 for a small and often bland-tasting fish also have to accept their share of responsibility, Sadovy says. “These customers have a choice. They have lots of money. There are lots of other excellent fish that are more sustainable. Of all people, they have the luxury to be able to choose — so, for goodness’ sake, make the right choices.” Alex Hofford, a Hong Kong-based wildlife campaigner for WildAid, says, “There are homeless people sleeping on the streets in Sham Shui Po, while across the harbour in the Shangri-La there are rich people dining on a HK$4,000 endangered fish. To me, that’s obnoxious.”

Famous Hong Kong Hotel Restaurants That Serve Humpback Wrasse

Sadovy said “It is deeply disappointing that a top-class hotel such as the Island Shangri-La has a restaurant selling endangered species, especially given the hotel’s pledge to source sustainably. Its restaurants should be setting an example, not lowering its standards, raising prices and contributing to the extinction risk now faced by this species.” [Source: Simon Parry, South China Morning Post, June 9, 2019]

Hofford says the Island Shangri-La’s negligence is especially frustrating “after all the exemplary public efforts they have made over the years to ban shark fin from their restaurants and adopt a strict sustainable seafood policy. “We hope the Shangri-La Group can learn a lesson from this and better educate their frontline staff on how they should be protecting endangered species, not selling them into extinction. The Hong Kong government should initiate regular CITES inspections, and carry out CITES enforcement actions on luxury hotels in the city in order to combat this illegal trade in endangered marine species that carries on daily under our noses.”

Asked about the sale of the Humphead wrasse, a spokesperson for the Island Shangri-La told the South China Morning Post Magazine in a statement: “The fish [was] served off-menu and our internal policies and controls which prohibit the sale of this fish [were] bypassed.“This does not represent what we stand for. We remain committed to promoting responsible sourcing and environmental practices and we are very sorry that this has happened. We have since taken immediate action to ensure that this fish will not be offered or sold at our restaurant. We will further strengthen our internal processes and will be conducting more training and awareness programmes to ensure our staff understand our policies and the importance of sustainable sourcing.

“We held a licence to sell the fish until 2017,” the spokesperson said. “Thereafter, we introduced internal policies and controls to prohibit the sale of this fish. This should not have happened and we are very sorry that our controls were bypassed.” The hotel had been “unable to determine” whether the fish served to the activists was wild-caught or ranched, the spokesperson said, and investigations are continuing to establish whether the fish has been served on other occasions.

The Langham Hotel initially declined to answer questions about the sale of the Humphead wrasse, instead issuing a brief statement saying the hotel was “committed to support environmental and social sustainability initiatives” and adding, “Humphead wrasse served at T’ang Court are farmed. The item is not on our menu and is only available upon request.” When it was pointed out that there are no farmed Napoleon fish commercially available — only ranched fish — the hotel responded with a new statement: “This is an important issue and we are always mindful of our stewardship on environmental programmes at The Langham. Therefore, after a detailed internal review of our sustainability policies, T’ang Court will cease to serve humphead wrasse with immediate effect.” Although the activists say they were told by staff the Humphead wrasse they ordered at T’ang Court was wild-caught, The Langham says it was in fact ranched, and therefore the restaurant did not require a possession licence. Hotels have sustainability teams and statements, they should play a role in safeguarding our marine resources and ecosystems

The Peninsula hotel introduced a ban on the sale of Humphead wrasse in 2016 and told the activists when they tried to order it in March: “We don’t do humphead wrasse.” Executive chef Florian Trento says it was his decision to take the fish off the menu, even though it had been a popular dish because of its striking appearance and delicate meat. “I noticed over a period of years they were becoming smaller and smaller, as they were being caught and sold without even reaching full maturity,” he says. “It is important that we do not lose sight of the bigger picture with our food.”

Janice Lao, director of corporate responsibility and sustainability for the Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, which owns The Peninsula, says it is extremely difficult to legally source Humphead wrasse because “there is no or little record in Hong Kong that this fish has landed”. Imported Napoleon fish are often either registered with the government as a different species or not registered at all, she says.“This is obviously illegal. Therefore, legally, we are not even supposed to have access to this fish.”

For Sadovy, the reactions of the Island Shangri-La and Langham hotels to the investigation have been encouraging but she wonders how many other Hong Kong hotels and restaurants are continuing to drive the species into murkier and more uncertain waters. “When we see so many of these top hotels who are prepared to sell it, legally or not, it undermines all this work and the efforts of the Indonesian government and the Hong Kong government to try to rein in this trade to sustainable levels,” she says.

Humphead Wrasse Trade

The Philippines, Indonesia and Sabah Malaysia are the three largest exporters of the humphead wrasse. The fish has one of the highest retail values in Asia, especially when caught alive, and it is considered a delicacy in places like Malaysia and Hong Kong.Sabah, on Borneo Island, is a major source of humphead wrasses. The fishing industry is vital to this state because of its severe poverty. The export of humphead wrasses out of Sabah has led to a roughly 99 percent decline in the area's population. [Source: Wikipedia]

Most exports of the humphead wrasse in Malaysia occur in Sandakan, Papar and Tawau, where the fish could be purchased in the early 2020s for between US$45.30 and $69.43, with its retail price ranging from $60.38 to $120.36.

Four main reasons why illegal, unregulated and unreported humphead wrasse trade persists are: 1) Lack of capacity — a lack exists of formal procedures and personnel to monitor fishing activities and enforce fishing regulations; 2) Lack of disincentives — Fishers do not have alternatives for the humphead wrasse, due to its value, and sanctions for illegal fishing are not harsh enough to discourage them; 3) Weak accountability systems — Because a number of people are involved in the species's trade, it is difficult to trace its source; and importers and consumers cannot be held responsible for illegal exportation; and 4) Absent domestic trade controls — Domestic catching, possession and trade are not sufficiently restricted. Fishers may illegally source the fish or intend to illegally trade it, but cannot be prosecuted if they are in Malaysian waters with appropriate permits.

Illegal, unregulated and unreported activities have been identified as the major factor for the failure of conservation efforts. Although the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has banned its export, the fish are still smuggled across the Malaysia–Philippines border.

Humpback Wrasse Trade and Hong Kong

Trade in the humphead wrasse is difficult to trace and far from sustainable according to an investigation conducted in 2019 by environmental activists and the environmental organisation WildAid. . Simon Parry wrote in the South China Morning Post: “The vast majority of Humphead wrasse exported from Indonesia both legally and illegally end up in Hong Kong and a significant proportion are then smuggled on to the mainland, environmental groups say. [Source: Simon Parry, South China Morning Post, June 9, 2019]

“Of the 50 Hong Kong hotels and restaurants contacted by the activists, 31 said they could, with two or three days’ notice, provide wild-caught Humphead wrasse, which, while legal in Hong Kong, are restricted. Exports from Indonesia of wild-caught Humphead wrasse are capped at 2,000 a year, and Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) rules stipulate that any Hong Kong restaurant serving such specimens must have a possession licence on display. The cap for cheaper, ranched fish is substantially higher, at 40,000, but, says University of Hong Kong’s Sadovy, “there is no biological sustainability plan for ranched fish.”

“Every restaurant that offered Humphead wrasse said the fish were wild-caught, according to the activists, but no possession licences were to be seen in either the Summer Place or T’ang Court when the meals were served...The manager of one Sai Kung restaurant told the activists: “We have the biggest selection of seafood and the biggest fish tank in the district. Just come over and have a look. If you want a nice humphead wrasse, we can do it quietly because, if the AFCD finds out, it will mean big trouble.” Wild-caught fish are so highly sought after, despite the risk, because they are “thought to be healthier, chemical-free, and much tastier and safer”, says Sadovy. And there’s a cachet to eating wild fish. “It would widely be assumed and expected that expensive fish would be wild-caught and rare.”

“Hong Kong ships export wild-caught humphead wrasse out of Indonesia without CITES permits and then do not report their cargos to customs, according to a study led by Sadovy, who has tracked the plight of the species for more than a decade. In a complex piece of detective work spanning years and including vessel tracking, checks on customs and AFCD data, and eyewitness accounts from Indonesia, The oversight of Hong Kong live-fish carrier vessels by government departments, including the AFCD, Customs and the Marine Department, is “weak to absent”. The AFCD told the South China Morning Post there were 29 convictions from 2014 to 2018 for illegal possession of Humphead wrasse, with a maximum penalty of HK$35,000 imposed. [Source: Simon Parry, South China Morning Post, June 9, 2019]

Sadovy and her colleagues have gathered evidence of the scale of the illegal trade. “Some Hong Kong vessels importing wild live reef fishes, including Napoleon, have demonstrably been involved in illegal trade in Napoleon fish into Hong Kong and out of Indonesia,” Sadovy says. “About 30 [live-fish carrier] cargo vessels are registered in Hong Kong, with about 10 legally active in Indonesia.”

Enforcement and Humpback Wrasse Trade in Hong Kong

Simon Parry wrote in the South China Morning Post: In recent years, the AFCD has increased enforcement, Indonesia has improved control of foreign vessels and there has been a rising awareness among businesses about the sensitivity of trading in Humphead wrasse, Sadovy acknowledges. But the failure to crack down fully on lawbreakers means not just that this particular species continues to be illegally traded but also that a hugely lucrative live-seafood trade — the retail sale of reef fish is estimated to be worth at least US$1 billion a year — is vulnerable to money laundering and income-tax evasion. “I do not have evidence of money laundering or income tax evasion,” she says. “However we do have evidence fish are ‘laundered’ — that is to say illegally imported fish are used to replace legally imported fish in Hong Kong retail outlets.”

To bring the seafood trade under control needs the involvement of more investigative capacity and stronger enforcement Laxity also diminishes the chances of a transparent and traceable trade, from reef to restaurant, developing in support of certification and sustainable sourcing, she says. Large numbers of other live fish, mainly groupers, are part of the black market, being brought out of Indonesia and re-exported from Hong Kong into mainland China.

The lack of oversight also has human health implications, as several reef fish, including the Humphead wrasse, can be ciguatoxic, causing vomiting, diarrhoea, numbness of extremities, mouth and lips, the reversal of hot and cold sensations, and muscle and joint aches.

Sadovy recommends that live-fish carriers should be required to report their entry to and exit from Hong Kong to the Marine Department. “Currently they are exempted from doing so, which makes their movements impossible to track or trace by customs, which cannot then check if they are declaring their cargo,” she says. Inspections in cooperation with mainland authorities to tackle the “rampant cross-border smuggling of live seafood” should be stepped up, she adds. “The illegal live seafood trade is not taken as seriously as other trades where a lot of smuggling is involved, such as electronics or cigarettes,” Sadovy says. “To bring the seafood trade under control needs the involvement of more investigative capacity and stronger enforcement. This trade should fall under the Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance.”

Humphead Wrasse Conservation

In Guangdong Province, southern mainland China, permits are required for the sale of the species. Indonesia allows fishing only for research, mariculture and licensed artisanal fishing. The Maldives instituted an export ban in 1995; Papua New Guinea prohibits export of fish over 2 ft (61 centimeters); and Niue has banned all fishing for this species.

The humphead wrasse has historically been fished commercially in northern Australia, but has been protected in Queensland since 2003 and in Western Australia since 1998. In Taiwan it is a protected species with fines of between NT$300,000 and $1.5 million and jail sentences of between 6 months and 5 years under the Wildlife Conservation act for hunting or killing of the species having been added to the protection list in 2014. . In an effort to protect it, export of the humphead wrasse out of Sabah has been banned; however, it has not prevented illegal, unreported and unregulated activities. Protection by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is managed in this area by the federal Department of Fisheries Malaysia, which issues permits to regulate fishing activity. Two pieces of legislation have also been implemented to protect the species: The Fisheries Act 1985 controls the transport of live fish and prohibits destructive fishing techniques; and the Trade of Endangered Species Act 2008 supports Malaysia's adoption of CITES.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; YouTube, Animal Diversity Web, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated March 2023

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