Watchdog warns that the Humphead Wrasse, a restaurant favourite, is disappearing across the region An international study on the rare Napoleon Humphead Wrasse coral fish has concluded that it is disappearing across the region, thanks to growing demand in upmarket Chinese restaurants. The report comes about three months after the United States, Fiji and Ireland, on behalf of the European Union, proposed regulating trade in the fish. The proposal was submitted to the secretariat of the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species. Member countries to the convention will discuss and vote on the proposal in Bangkok in October. Compiled by scientists from Hong Kong, Senegal, France, Papua New Guinea and the United States, the report is regarded as the most comprehensive ever completed on the biology and trade of the Humphead Wrasse. More than 50 biologists, fish traders, fishermen and marine scientists were interviewed from 15 regions across the world, and 24 independent studies including underwater censuses were carried out over the past five years. It concluded that the fish is disappearing, as reflected in both official and unofficial records of landings of catches and catches by fishing boats in different countries. In some places such as Palau, the volume of netted fish dropped to zero in the mid-1990s after 500kg to 3,500kg had been the norm. Since then, exports of the fish have been banned. The same thing happened in Fiji, where catches are either low or zero nowadays. In western Sumatra, Indonesia, a key exporter of the species to Hong Kong, the catch rate per month per fisherman dropped by 30 to 80 per cent in the 1990s. Yvonne Sadovy, a co-author of the study and chairwoman of the World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong's conservation projects committee, said the decline in catches had happened across the region. She blamed over-fishing, which was caused by strong market demand and suppliers lured by the profits that can be made from the expensive fish. Hong Kong is believed to be the largest importer of the Humphead Wrasse, with an estimated annual import of about 40,000 to 200,000kg before 2002, with an unknown amount re-exported to the mainland. But this estimate is believed to be on the low side because the official record depends partially on voluntary submissions from licensed fish boats in Hong Kong. Dr Sadovy said the fish, though traded in rather low volumes compared with other species, was in jeopardy if the current trend of fishing and consumption continues. 'It is simply biologically and naturally vulnerable - it can't withstand heavy fishing pressure, even if it is of a low volume.' She said the fish, which can live for 30 years and grow to two metres long, takes six years to mature and the population does not replenish itself quickly. 'As a result of the overfishing, [young fish] are now being traded.' The group is now organising a public awareness campaign to urge restaurants to take the fish off the menu. But Chan Siu-wah, chairman of the Hong Kong Chamber of Seafood Merchants, said they would oppose the proposal. 'The researcher said the number of Humpheads is declining as reflected in the visual counting under the seas. But we don't know where they have been to and I suppose they spend most of the time in Indonesia and disregard the fact that the species has a wide distribution from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean,' he said. 'For us, there is no question of stopping the trade. All those academics want to do is in fact stop all fishing and trade.' Mr Chan said they were all legal fish traders and would abide by all local legislation. He admitted that the number of Humphead Wrasse imported was dropping but said that was due to the ban of illegal fishing such as cyanide fishing.