SSC Playing a Key Role in the Conservation of a Coral Reef Giant

The IUCN Groupers & Wrasses Specialist Group is playing a central role in the development of a sustainable management plan for the Humphead wrasse Cheilinus undulatus fishery.

Humphread wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), a highly prized food fish. Over-fishing is having a serious impact on many populations. Photo: Valerie H.O.

A highly prized food fish, over-fishing is having a serious impact on many populations throughout its Indo-Pacific range and numbers have fallen by over 90% in some areas.

Due to these declines, the Humphead wrasse was added to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2004. This aims to prevent a species becoming threatened by unsustainable trade through the issue of export certificates from a managed fishery.

Following its listing, the IUCN Groupers & Wrasses Specialist Group was contracted by the CITES Secretariat to develop a sustainable management plan (Non-Detriment Findings), based on trade, fishing and population surveys in the field. Further funding from the United States has enabled additional field surveys and workshops involving traders, fishermen and trade officials. Working closely with Indonesia, a key exporter, and Hong Kong, the principal importer, their findings have recently been published in two reports; with a third due out in 2007. (CITES report (2 MB)).

Main findings:

One of the more worrying findings is the heavy reliance on juvenile fish to maintain this fishery, as this will exacerbate ongoing population declines by removing future spawners before they reproduce. Well-managed fisheries typically seek to avoid catching juveniles, but up to 90% of traded Humphead Wrasse are at or below sexual maturity. Capable of growing to two metres long and weighing over 190 kilos, the Humphead Wrasse is the largest coral reef fish but most individuals barely manage to reach the reproductive size (35-50cm) in fished areas.

Other key findings include:

* International cooperation between governments and traders is essential to enforce size and quota regulations.
* Cooperation within governments between relevant departments needs to be developed in some countries which have not previously had to address the conservation of a commercial fish species.
* Fish densities are100 times less in heavily fished areas compared to unfished areas and remaining fish are at or below the size of sexual maturity.
* Catch levels are maintained by switching to new areas once stocks are depleted.
* 90% of traded fish are at or below the size of sexual maturity and increasingly smaller fish are being traded.
* Some of the small fish have been taken from the wild and grown-out in captivity until a suitable market size; although these are considered to be maricultured, such activity is more correctly to be considered a capture fishery of juveniles; much mortality may occur during the grow-out phase.
* Most consumers prefer smaller fish (cheaper, less chance of being caught with cyanide, less risk of ciguatera poisoning). However, many small fish continue to be caught with cyanide.
* Monitoring and enforcement of trade regulations are difficult because many fish are illegally exported by sea from major source countries, and then may be imported to Hong Kong then re-exported to southern Mainland China illegally by sea to avoid tariffs.
* It is estimated that a significant proportion of Humphead wrasse imported into Hong Kong from Indonesia is illegal.

Key recommendations:

A series of recommendations have been made to move things forward towards the implementation of sustainable catch and trade levels following the CITES listing. These include:

* Minimum size regulations to be more widely applied and better enforced to protect juveniles.
* Consumer awareness campaign to reduce demand for this species and encourage alternative fish to be selected in restaurants..
* Good communication between the governments of Indonesia (main exporter) and Hong Kong (major importer) required for effective enforcement.
* Establish a one-stop shop permit issuing authority to simplify applications and monitoring.
* Mortality rates, between capture and export, and especially during grow-out need to be determined so they can be factored into quotas.
* Consider establishing protected areas to maintain breeding populations and full size range populations.

Next steps:

On the basis of these reports, IUCN is collaborating with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to develop a stock assessment that can be the basis of Non Detrimental Findings in Indonesia. Pending finalization of a stock assessment, the government of Indonesia has introduced an interim annual export quota of 8,000 animals. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is preparing legislation to implement the CITES II listing at the end of the year, with additional legislation that also controls possession and import, and in preparation consulted traders through a workshop held in January.

The stock assessment is being specially designed for the Humphead wrasse to factor in important aspects of its biology, such as female to male sex change. The final model will have a simple front-end for easy use so that it can readily be adapted to different circumstances and stock conditions in other source countries. There are also plans to develop a set of general guidelines for management of reef fishes, such as the Humphead wrasse, since these typically receive little management attention from fisheries departments or Regional Fishery Management Organizations, despite the vulnerability of many species to uncontrolled fishing.

For more information please contact:

Dr. Yvonne Sadovy, Chair, IUCN SSC Groupers and Wrasses Specialist Group. Email

Andrew McMullin, IUCN Species Programme Communications Officer
Tel: +41 (0)22 999 0153

IUCN SSC Groupers and Wrasses Specialist Group

CITES report: Development of fisheries management tools for trade
in humphead wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus (2 MB)

CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)

Work area: 
Marine species
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