HONG KONG (Reuters) - Turquoise fish with red dots stare at hungry tourists from a tank at a restaurant in Hong Kong, the capital of the world’s live reef fish industry, a lucrative trade devastating reefs across the Pacific Ocean.
Considered a delicacy, demand for coral fish has exploded in line with China’s booming economy and some species such as the humphead wrasse are already endangered.
“You may not be able to eat it in 4 to 5 years, whatever money you pay. This is the favorite among people from mainland China,” said a fish merchant, who gave his name only as Chen.
Restaurant fish tanks in Hong Kong are filled with exotic fish species gathered from all around Southeast Asia, Australia and even remote Pacific islands, such as Fiji and Vanuatu.
With the marine stock already exhausted in nearby waters, Hong Kong traders are reaching far and wide for increasingly rare fish such as groupers, snappers and humphead wrasse, spreading the unsustainable fishing habit across the Pacific.
“Basically it’s been like a vacuum cleaner across the region,” said Andy Cornish, director for conservation at the WWF Hong Kong. “Reefs near Hong Kong were depleted decades ago, and the trade has moved further and further away to source fish.”
Biologists say reef fish are highly vulnerable to overfishing as they need 5-10 years before reaching breeding age, and the trade is difficult to manage because the fishing is mostly on a small scale, done by rural communities.
“Demand for many reef fishes is just too high ... Wild populations will continue to decline, if nothing is done because the fisheries are typically unmanged,” said Yvonne Sadovy, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong.
“China is where the demand for live reef fish is particularly heavy, and where it is also expected to grow ... A lot of the reef fish that come into Hong Kong are re-exported into China,” said the marine biologist.
Early this month, the IUCN World Conservation Union issued a warning that 20 species of grouper —- a delicacy often served at Chinese banquets — were threatened with extinction unless conservation measures were introduced.
Large parts of reefs in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia are becoming void of marine life as a result of overfishing and the use of cyanide to catch fish alive.
Though illegal, many fishermen use cyanide, an exceptionally damaging and wasteful way to catch the fish, which hide amongst the coral, marine experts say.
The divers squirt the toxin in the reef to stun the fish. But that kills most other marine life, including coral. Only about a quarter survive to make it to restaurants, experts say.
“We did two days of wild diving far from any civilization. Not a single fish was to be seen, not one,” Charles Frew told Reuters after a trip to near Leyte in the Philippines last month.
“I was shocked, more than anything ... It’s got strong currents, beautiful blue water. There are some bits of nice coral. But there’s nothing,” said the director of Asiatic Marine, a company specializing in marine surveys and underwater filming.
While many live fish arrive in planes, many also come in on specially designed vessels. Hong Kong traders travel through thousands of islands in Indonesia, Malaysia or the Philippines, collecting the prized fish alive from local fishermen.
Humphead wrasse, also known as Napoleon wrasse, commands as much as $200 a kilo. A blue adult can reach more than two meters and weigh 200 kg (440 lb).
“That’s a lot of money for a fisherman,” said George Woodman, a director of conservation group Teng Hoi. “You can get a lot of people to move for that money ... The search is very big.”
Asked how wide spread cyanide was, Reinhard Renneberg, chemistry professor from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said: “I believe almost all big, undamaged fish are caught with cyanide.”
“Cyanide in fish is no longer harmful for people ... It would be nice, if you could say you’d get big health problems, if you eat this fish,” said Renneberg, who has developed a testing device for cyanide in live fish.
An official from the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) said it had no plans to check cyanide in imported fish, which could help stem cyanide use.
But it took the first step in December to manage the trade in a reef fish by requiring import licenses for humphead wrasse, the only coral fish listed as potentially threatened by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species
“This is really a test case,” said Cornish from WWF. “If all the countries like the Philippines or Indonesia start developing a management plan for that species, that would be fantastic.”
In December, Manila arrested about 30 Chinese fishermen suspected of poaching. Their ship Hoi Wan was carrying more than 300 live humphead wrasse consigned for Hong Kong.
Cheung Chisun, a senior Hong Kong official in charge of endangered species, said thousands of humphead wrasse had arrived in Hong Kong since December, mostly from Indonesia, though more than half were re-exported to mainland China.
Humphead wrasse still appears on menus in some restaurants in Hong Kong, though fish traders say it is increasingly rare and getting smaller.
Asked about endangered species, fish restaurant manager Gu Chao Fan told Reuters: “You have to book a week in advance. There are not many these days.”