Keeping the colour in the oceans

Professor Yvonne Sadovy’s passion for the oceans has led to a career that tackles the destructive impacts of unsustainable international species trade on both fishing communities and marine ecosystems.

Professor Yvonne Sadovy

Yvonne, who is founder and co-Chair of IUCN’s Groupers and Wrasses Specialist Group, will be among the IUCN delegation of experts helping governments make the best informed decisions when they meet in Bangkok for the Conference of the Parties to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, 3-14 March.

Yvonne’s work combines scientific research and education with investigations into the trade in reef fishes, one of the most colourful and diverse groups of marine animals. Many of these species are highly vulnerable to over-exploitation both because of their biology and high economic value. Yet, with few controls and often little concern for sustainability, they are being increasingly targeted for luxury seafood export markets, and as attractive aquarium fish. If nothing changes, some of these species may disappear forever from some areas, a loss both to marine biodiversity and to the people who depend on them.

“As my research has developed over the years, I have come to see how closely linked these fishes and the people who need them for food and for money are,” says Yvonne. “I now work not only on the species but with the people who depend on healthy fish populations; their futures are intertwined.”

Reef fishes depend on habitat that is often easily accessible to fishing boats. Although most reef fishes produce large numbers of eggs each year, the rates of population growth of many of the exploited species are very slow. This means that only relatively small numbers can be taken each year if enough are to remain for populations to rebound. Their high value in the live fish trade, and the massive demand for such fish, however, makes them a particularly appealing target; juveniles as well as spawning adults are taken.

One of Yvonne’s ongoing projects is the implementation of a sustainable management plan for the iconic humphead wrasse, also known as the Napoleon fish, one of the biggest reef fishes. Considered in some countries to be a ‘stately’ or ‘royal’ fish, and prized historically for its flavour and texture, the species is highly valued in the restaurant trade in Southeast Asia.

As its populations plummeted and availability to live fish traders has declined, its price has soared, with individual fish now fetching up to $US 600 in Mainland China, the major demand centre for the species. This ever-increasing price combined with the natural rarity of the species makes its management particularly difficult because traders still seek it more intensively even as it becomes harder to find. Some wealthy customers feel it is cachet to serve a threatened fish to their colleagues and family; some chefs specialize in serving threatened species.

In 1996, the humphead wrasse was listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and in 2004 it was upgraded to Endangered. Since 2004, it has been listed on CITES Appendix II. This Appendix includes species for which international trade must be controlled to within sustainable levels so as not to threaten their survival. It is important in encouraging the sustainable use of species.

At the last meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES, a Working Group was established to look at IUU (illegal, unregulated and unmonitored) trade in humphead wrasse which is seriously undermining the trade controls put in place by the major exporter of the species, Indonesia.

Yvonne on behalf of the IUCN Specialist Group has participated in the review process in relation to IUU, commissioning a study in mainland China and organizing international meetings and workshops to discuss the issue.

“In Bangkok I will represent the Specialist Group to provide expert information and support as needed,” Yvonne explains. “We work closely with the major importers and exporters of the humphead wrasse and are aware of the key issues and challenges. We examine the trade from beginning to end and help in education and outreach. We support governments who welcome us in any way we can to provide information that helps them manage this species.”

Yvonne and her colleagues have worked closely with Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as several Pacific countries supplying humphead wrasse to China. A major challenge remains in the implementation of the CITES Appendix II listing by mainland China but progress on the export side has been made in the last three years with a much greater understanding of the problems affecting this species. An important result of the discussions on sustainable management of humphead wrasse by exporting countries is the growing dialogue on the need for sustainable management for reef fishes in general. And it is this much bigger ‘knock-on’ implication of the work associated with this species which takes it relevance far beyond just one big beautiful reef fish.

“The Appendix II listing of the humphead wrasse was the first of its kind for a coral reef food fish. It is my wish to see the listing implemented successfully because it could then be a role model for other fishes; a demonstration that the listing can be meaningful for conserving both the species and the trade that depends on its healthy populations. In turn, this will help the fishing communities that need access to wild fishes. My dream is that we are so successful in achieving sustainable use that the species is removed from the CITES appendices altogether," Yvonne explains.

“We have made a major advance in developing a novel ‘non detriment finding’ (NDF) approach for the species, considered to be a major challenge for marine listings, and have already seen it applied in Southeast Asia. NDF refers to proof that international trade in any CITES-listed species will not be detrimental to the survival of that species. My ultimate aim is to see the species removed entirely from CITES Appendix II – for me this would be a demonstration of our success.”

Yvonne is a Professor at the University of Hong Kong and is also Director of the Society for the Conservation of Reef Fish Aggregations (SCRFA) which tackles the particular problem of overexploitation of spawning aggregations. The NGO highlights the importance of good science for effective conservation and produces a wide range of specialized and public educational materials.

Work area: 
Marine species
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