SSC Groups


Chronology of research, trade, progress and challenges since 2002 when the Humphead wrasse was first proposed for a CITES App II listing (updated November 2017)

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between governments which aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

The Humphead (Napoleon) wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus, was listed on Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) in October of 2004. It was listed because it was considered to be actually or potentially threatened by prevailing exploitation levels or disturbances if these persist without any controls. The species is conservation dependent and management is particularly important given that most of the trade focuses on the juvenile and sub-adult sizes ranges (mainly 25-45 cm TL) of the species because these are convenient in the live fish restaurant trade which represents the major pressure from international trade on the species. Few adults are encountered in the wild where this species is exploited heavily.

The species was originally proposed for Appendix II at CoP 12 (Conference of the Parties; Parties are CITES signatories) in 2002. The proposal was adopted by consensus at CoP13 (2004). The CoP13 proposal can be accessed. The FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) ad hoc Advisory Panel on commercially exploited aquatic species being proposed for Appendices I and II at CoP13, assessed the proposal prior to CoP13 and agreed that it was consistent with Appendix II listing criteria. A recent review evaluates trade in threatened marine species listed on CITES appendices.

CHRONOLOGY 2004-2017

October 2004: CoP13 - following the Appendix II listing in October 2004, several initiatives were developed to raise awareness about the CITES listing and also to collect additional information on trade and natural densities relevant to the development of Non-Detriment Findings (i.e. a sustainable management plan) for the species in Indonesia, the major global exporting country for this species. For the *NDF report and stock assessment (NDF Survey Method), which were done in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, see ‘Stock Assessment Approach…..’ 2007. The accompanying interactive model allows each country to tailor-fit local conditions and establish a sustainable export quota.

*NDF are non-detriment findings under CITES; countries are only permitted to export CITES II-listed species if they have an NDF and regulate international trade.

A adult, B juvenile/sub-adult
A adult, B juvenile/sub-adult. Photo: Pat Colin

December 2004 - a project was initiated by the IUCN SSC Groupers and Wrasses Specialist Group (GWSG) working together with the government of Indonesia CITES Scientific and Management Authorities and Fisheries divisions. The project was funded by the CITES Secretariat with ongoing work supported by National Marine Fisheries Service and The University of Hong Kong.

2004 – article indicating concerns for the status of Napoleon fish released following completion of global review of the status of the species. 

Young Humphead wrasse on sale outside restaurant in southern China
Young Humphead wrasse on sale outside restaurant in southern China. Photo: Liu Min-IUC

13 January 2006 - in Hong Kong, the major importer and trade hub for the Humphead wrasse, a local meeting was jointly held between the Agriculture, Conservation and Fisheries Department of the Hong Kong government and the IUCN GWSG (Proceedings for HHW workshop). The purpose of the workshop was to raise awareness in Hong Kong regarding the Appendix II listing, and in respect of associated local legislation on possession of the Humphead wrasse: local Hong Kong legislation means that possession and import licences are needed to trade this species. The workshop also sought the input and views of Hong Kong traders of this species to learn how they would be affected and to collect their opinions on the implications of the listing.

Indonesia is a major exporter of the Humphead wrasse, and the project, which consists of trade surveys and underwater visual census work in Indonesia, was designed to assist the government to develop its non-detriment findings (NDF). TRAFFIC-Southeast Asia (T-SEA) conducted the trade surveys with IUCN, and the GWSG worked with LIPI (Indonesian Institute of Sciences) on underwater visual census (UVC) surveys which provide information relevant to NDF deliberations.The first surveys are provided here with final reports shortly to be released for other surveys and all resurveys.

Beijing restaurant by Michael Fabinyi
Beijing restaurant. Photo: Michael Fabinyi

15-16 February, 2006 – a national workshop held in Jakarta hosted by LIPI (Indonesian Institute of Sciences) and co-organized with TRAFFIC-SEA, assisted by the IUCN-GWSG. The workshop addresssed Trade dynamics and population status of Napoleon Wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus, in Indonesia with the purpose is to enable a preliminary presentation of trade and UVC data collected (see above) and to identify remaining data and information gaps (Jakarta meeting objectives).

5-7 June, 2006 – regional meeting held in Hong Kong and co-organized by WWF-HK, IUCN-GWSG, AFCD, CITES and TRAFFIC to discuss management options for the Humphead wrasse. In particular, the possibility of adopting a regionally consistent management approach, based on the work in Indonesia (see above bullet), to managing this species will be addressed. Attendees included the CITES Scientific and Management Authorities of key exporting countries in SE Asia (Philippines and Malaysia), representatives from fishery divisions, FAO and other relevant organizations. (Check June 2006 report)

3-4 June, 2010 – regional meeting held in Bali, Indonesia. Workshop Report entitled: Workshop Report on the Trade of Cheilinus undulatus (Humphead Wrasse / Napoleon Wrasse) & CITES implementation. Powerpoint Presentation (Part IIIIII & IV). Malaysia introduced a zero export quota after finding few fish in Malaysia waters using the NDF survey method discussed above. Following numerous reports of illegal trade into and through Hong Kong, the CITES Secretariat, at its 15th meeting in Doha 2010 (CoP 15), issued a Decision which asked trading countries to look into violations of the Convention which undermine the long-term sustainability of its global international trade. The Decision called for appropriate enforcement actions, improved monitoring of trade and for the strengthening of bilateral cooperation between major traders, including intelligence exchange and enforcement actions.  

In 2010 an article was produced discussing illegal, unregulated and unmonitored trade in the Napoleon fish was published in the Newsletter of the Secretariat for the Pacific Community.

2012 – More reports emerging from various locations on unregulated and probably illegal (i.e. not in CITES database as legal imports) sales of Humphead wrasse in Beijing wholesale market and restaurant menus (e.g. above photo). A report on tackling illegal, unregulated, and unreported trade of Humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) and recovery of the species in Sabah, Malaysia came out and Malaysia issued a ZERO EXPORT QUOTA.

Unregulated and probably illegal sales of Humphead wrasse
Unregulated and probably illegal sale of Humphead wrasse in Beijing wholesale outlet 2012.
Photo: Michael Fabinyi

18 September 2012 – As part of the information-gathering on IUU of HHW being conducted by the CITES Secretariat Working Group, a short meeting was held in Jakarta attended by CITES authorities from Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines – the major exporting countries for the species (although exports from the Philippines are technically illegal for any CITES II species). Recommendations are provided in the “Report of Supplementary Meeting to Inform the Humphead wrasse IUU Working Group September 18th, 2012”. The issue of IUU for HHW was on the agenda for CoP 16 in Bangkok. CoP16 Doc. 62: Humphead wrasse. An initial Conservation Planning exercise was conducted by the IUCN Conservation Planning Sub-Committee and a draft document of the Indonesian National Plan of Action for the species was also discussed.

2013 - Trade surveys were conducted in Mainland China indicating IUU across borders and the presence of undocumented HHW in retail and wholesale outlets. "Trade of the humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) in mainland China" M. Liu (2013) Xiamen University. WWF has also conducted a trade survey with similar findings - the final report is pending. Both reports consistently found large numbers (from observations and interviews with traders, tens of thousands are estimated to be in trade) of Napoleon fish in the restaurant sector and in retail and wholesale markets for live seafood in southern Mainland China. Several luxury hotels were also selling the fish. In late 2013 HHW was on the menu at the Hilton Hotel, Tianhe, Guangzhou. The photo of the menu went viral on Twitter (see below). The hotel subsequently took the fish off the menu except on request (communication in 2014). The Shangri-La Hotel in Guangzhou also had the species on its menu subject to special order.

Menu at the Hilton Hotel, Tianhe, Guangzhou.
Menu at the Hilton Hotel, Tianhe, Guangzhou. Photo: Alex Hofford

Bangkok 2013: CoP 16 – brief discussion of the Humphead wrasse and issuance of follow up document to the 2010 Doha meeting Decision to look further into illegal trade of the species, in part with the participation of the IUCN GWSG.

Indonesia, Anambas Islands 2013 – Visit by GWSG to the Anambas Islands, western Indonesia, a major source of exported Napoleon wrasse for several decades. Large areas of grow-out cages were visited and a Hong Kong-bound vessel collecting the fish was boarded to observe the wrasse being placed on board. The grow-out operations have much potential to be operated sustainably because very young (shortly post-settlement) fish are collected from inshore macroalgae and grown out in good quality water for 4-5 years. There is need for a management plan to ensure sustainability and establish an export quota.

Napoleon wrasse grow-out facilities at Anambas
Napoleon wrasse grow-out facilities at Anambas. Photo: Yvonne Sadovy

Small juvenile Humphead wrasse just before loading onto a Hong Kong registered vessel in western Indonesia and exported with no CITES permit.
Small juvenile Humphead wrasse just before loading onto a Hong Kong registered
vessel in western Indonesia and exported with no CITES permit.
Photo: Yvonne Sadovy

November 2014 -  Emerging reports of Napoleons being sold frozen indicate that even the dead (frozen) fish sells well. Frozen Napoleons were seen on sale in southern mainland China markets and, as in the photo, in a Malaysian airport (about 34US$/kg). Multiple on-line sales of the species are evident, including from countries where the species is protected from export (e.g. Fiji).

Frozen Napoleons were on sale in southern mainland China markets.
Frozen Napoleons were on sale in Malaysia airport in 2014 - price in Malaysian ringgits.
Photo: Allen To

2015 – In Hong Kong, 13 monthly surveys of the three biggest fish markets carried out by a team from Hong Kong University during the study recorded a total of 1,197 live Humphead Wrasse between November 2014 and December 2015. There is usually a short turnaround time (around two weeks) between import and sale of live Humphead Wrasse, making it highly unlikely that double-counting occurred or that those observed on sale had been imported years earlier (as suggested by the timing of import permits issues). There are no known appropriate facilities for long-term storage of this species on land in Hong Kong used by traders. The species is regularly on sale with no possession permits visible in retail outlets. Sometimes the sale is advertised in public. The signboard in the photo below was picked up by social media querying its legality.

Humphead Wrasse sale advertised in public.
Special Napoleon wrasse dish advertised on the street in Hong Kong
in December 2015. There was no possession licence posted publicly
to show legal sale. Price in HK$.

December 2015 – A workshop was held in Jakarta, Indonesia, on NDF for government staff (LIPI and Marine Resources/Fisheries), to cover principles for and further training on determining NDF based on the FAO/GWSG novel methodology developed (see end of page) and applied to the Humphead wrasse. A secondary aim of the workshop was related to further NDF work and to identify knowledge gaps and research needs. IUCN conservation planning was also conducted for the species.

Completion of summaries on field surveys on Napoleon fish in Indonesia conducted by LIPI, scientific arm of the government of Indonesia, some in collaboration with the IUCN GWSG, initially covered 7 sites selected as baseline studies to measure fish abundance, sizes and densities. Earlier information was also used for the FAO NDF work in Indonesia for population abundance (see links below; Indonesia has an export quota of 2000). Six of these sites have now been resurveyed (surveyed twice within a period of 4-8 years) to assess changes since the country introduced export quotas for the species under CITES. Full results will be released shortly (the 7th site at Kangean islands, north of Bali was not resurveyed due to safety concerns but no fish were seen in the field indicating very low natural abundance in this location) with increased densities noted at unfished or little fished sites, signs of recovery at one site where fishing ceased between surveys and very low numbers and small sizes at heavily fished sites. Most fish surveyed were juveniles or subadults. Results are encouraging that low fishing pressure can be sustained on the species, and that reduction of higher fishing pressure can show early signs of recovery within 4 years.


2016 – Release of report entitled: HUMPHEAD (NAPOLEON) WRASSE Cheilinus undulatus trade into and through Hong Kong (see report). This work is a partnership between TRAFFIC-East and South Asia and the IUCN Groupers and Wrasses Specialist Group, and highlights ongoing illegal trade in the Napoleon wrasse by Hong Kong.


2017 -Survey work continues of the retail sector to determine numbers of Napoleons on sale compared to those that are legally imported under CITES permits into the major trade hub of Hong Kong. While illegal imports continue, these are greatly reduced, very probably due to much increased enforcement effort by the Government of Hong Kong's Agriculture Fisheries and Conservation Department. Several projects to raise awareness  range from street campaigns (as the friendly Napoleon below) to Facebook campaigns: HHW watch

For discussion: 69th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee - Geneva: 27 November - 1 December 2017. SEE LINK   


Humphead Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus)




Stock Assessment Approach for the Napoleon Fish in Indonesia PDF Document 2.58MB
NDF Model -Excel File (for calculation of quota) ZIP Document 2.06MB
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