The wide ranging study of Johannes and Reipen (1995) indicated that the live fish trade swept through most reefs in the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea several years ago, and has overfished almost all populations from Sri Lanka to Micronesia and southwards to Australia. Clearly, the fishers are spending lots of time and effort catching the few remaining individuals of these now very rare species. This rarity is reflected in data collected during reef surveys in Sabah, (East Malaysia) from 1997 to 2000.
From transects and timed swim searches at over sixty separate reefs spread over 2500km of coast, only four reefs, actually had any of the reproductive sized groupers that are targeted by the live fish trade. Apart from fish seen at two protected areas (discussed in box on protected areas), only two adult humphead wrasse were seen. These fish were both either large juveniles or small females.
HUMPHEAD WRASSE POPULATIONS HAVE BEEN DECIMATED FROM ALL OF THE SOUTH EAST ASIAN WATERS.
The live fish trade has prompted the inclusion of some of the largest fish species — humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), giant groupers (Epinephelus lanceolatus) and bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) — into the IUCN Red List. These fish have very wide ranges and are currently classified as vulnerable although it certainly appears that in many areas they are locally extinct. The humphead wrasse fishery is severely regulated in several countries, including Indonesia although this is more a paper protection than real.
Apparently, in Sabah in 1997, no humphead wrasse were exported. However, it is highly likely that the 700 kg of exported parrotfish were mislabelled; even live fish restaurants in Sabah advertise the humphead wrasse as a parrotfish. The humphead wrasse have certainly disappeared according to both our surveys and the fish collection cages which have progressively emptied over the last few years.
The cyanide detection laboratories set up at export centres in the Philippines are an important step towards reducing the use of cyanide but the simple size of the coasts makes it easy for live fish boats to operate without passing through customs checks.