Exposed: the illegal Hong Kong trade in endangered coral reef fish

Despite more than 1,000 counted on sale, no imports of the fish took place last year according to official records, exposing extent of illegal trade

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 March, 2016, 8:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 March, 2016, 10:13am

Hong Kong plays a major role as an import and transshipment hub for the endangered humphead wrasse despite regulations to protect the reef fish implemented nearly a decade ago, a new report has found.

At least 1,197 living humphead wrasses – also known as Napoleon fish – were counted on sale in the city during a study of live fish shops between November 2014 and December 2015 by wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic and the University of Hong Kong’s Swire Institute of Marine Science.

The report’s results suggested many of the fish had entered the city illegally given that no official imports were carried out last year and the fish are typically sold within a few weeks of import, the authors said.

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Live wrasses were also found on sale at markets and on e-commerce sites in Shenzhen, some of which researchers said may have been smuggled via Hong Kong.

“The market surveys clearly indicate illegal and unreported trade ... which is indicative of insufficient patrolling and enforcement and undermines existing trade regulations,”said Traffic senior programme officer Joyce Wu, one of the authors.

In 2005, the species was placed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to regulate the international trade through the issuing of export permits by source countries to prove trade in the species would not affect its population.

A licence to possess the fish and a record of sale must be kept by traders in Hong Kong. But the report said there was no requirement these records be reported back to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department for verification, nor did the department have the resources to enforce or monitor such activity.

“Presumably the AFCD considered that no premises would document illegal sales,” the report said.

Despite being classified as “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, the fish is eaten as a delicacy in Hong Kong and on the mainland, where it can fetch up to US$600 per kilogram.

The humphead wrasse, which is named as such due to its bulbous forehead, can grow to two metres in length but takes four to five years to reach adulthood in the wild, meaning most are sold as juveniles. This has prompted concerns about sustainability.

“Failure to act to ensure legal and sustainable trade in this globally threatened species will ultimately result in higher prices for humpheads and fewer fish available to consumers and to the poor fishermen who sell them in source countries: nobody wins,” said co-author Professor Yvonne Sadovy of HKU.

She called for urgent action by the government to ensure imports and sales are legal, existing regulations are complied with by importers and traders, and to increase the intensity and frequency of inspections of facilities trading in the species.

The AFCD said the study helped it seize 13 tails of humphead wrasses from four traders since December, and it would step up patrols.