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 four to five years, whatever money you pay. This is the favourite 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 unmanaged,” 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 civilisation. Not a single fish was to be seen, not one,” Charles Frew said after a trip to near Leyte in the Philippines in February.
“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 specialising 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 (about R18) a kilo. A blue adult can reach more than two meters and weigh 200kg.
“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.”