Philippines: WWF calls for regional moratorium on trade of live reef food fish

The Philippine Star 30 Sep 12;

MANILA, Philippines - Top sustainable seafood advocate World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) recently launched a report revealing legal and policy gaps in the trade of live reef food fish in the Coral Triangle, highlighting the urgent need for a comprehensive management framework – starting with a moratorium on endangered Humphead Wrasse – to help address threats to the region’s dwindling seafood supply.

The report, Legal and Policy Gaps in the Management of Live Reef Food Fish Trade in the Coral Triangle Region, examines the legal and policy framework for the live reef food fish trade (LRFFT) in all six Coral Triangle countries – the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste.

“At the heart of this report is the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which is one of the most challenging issues in the trade in live reef food fish in the Coral Triangle,” explains WWF Coral Triangle program strategy leader Dr. Geoffrey Muldoon.

“A regional moratorium on the trade and consumption of Humphead Wrasse, for starters, can serve as a model for the kind of comprehensive legal and policy measures the trade needs in this region,” adds Dr. Muldoon.

One of the world’s most massive, colorful and long-lived reef fish, the Humphead Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) can reach six feet from snout to tail and can tip the scales at over 200 kilos. Juveniles look somewhat like gray-green tilapia, while adults sport an impressive forehead bump. They are delectable and expensive, turning up in seafood restaurants, markets and even exotic Philippine pet retail centers like Cartimar.

Decades of unregulated collection has depleted global numbers. The Humphead Wrasse is now classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered and is listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). While still allowing its local capture and international trade, the listing is intended to ensure that the species is fished sustainably.

In the Philippines, it is protected under Section 97 of Republic Act 8550 or the Fisheries Code of 1998. Mere possession of the fish can net a P120,000 fine and up to 20 years of jail time.

“The regulation of trade in Humphead Wrasse, while different from country to country, is consistently inadequate across the region. As an Appendix II listed species, non-detrimental findings (NDF), which sets a quota on exports, is required before trading in this species can occur. We believe the trade is not being monitored in accordance with the NDF studies that have been conducted. By imposing a moratorium on this species in Indonesia, combined with the existing export moratorium in Malaysia and export limitation in the Philippines, we will have restricted three major trading hubs in the Coral Triangle. This will help in monitoring and highlighting sustainability impacts from consumption in Hong Kong and China,” adds Dr. Muldoon.

Highly lucrative trade

The Coral Triangle, a six million square kilometer ocean expanse in Asia Pacific, contains roughly 37 percent of the world’s known coral reef fish species.

The trade in live reef food fish in the Coral Triangle was estimated to be worth over $810 million in 2002. High value species include Humphead Wrasse, selling for as much as HK$99 to HK$150 per kilo in luxury restaurants in Hong Kong and more than $350 per kilo in Beijing and Shanghai.

Aside from Hong Kong and mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore are the main importing and consumption markets of live reef food fish in the region. The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia have been key exporters for decades.

On the remote southern Philippine isles of Tawi-Tawi, divers with compressors search for young Napoleon Wrasse in shallow reefs and drop-offs. Once spotted and driven into cracks and crevices, the divers squirt a diluted mixture of sodium cyanide to stun and draw them out, inevitably killing all corals, sponges and other invertebrates around the site. If captured, the juvenile fish are reared in rudimentary shallow pens made of corals and limestone.

Traders from mainland China, Malaysia and other countries come to buy the fish, which are then kept alive in aerated, filtered holds. In December 2006, 359 juvenile Mameng were confiscated from the M/V Hoi Wan, a Chinese fishing vessel apprehended in Palawan. The find remains one of the most significant wildlife apprehensions in Philippine history. WWF-Philippines now works to promote viable alternatives to dwindling marine species such as Napoleon Wrasse through its Better Choices sustainable seafood campaign.

“The live reef food fish trade is largely an unregulated fishery in the region and poses serious threats to the health of coral reef environments and its ability to provide fish resources to an ever-growing global demand on seafood. There is currently no specific framework for live reef food fish management in the region, which presents a major weakness in ensuring the sustainability of the trade,” says Dr. Muldoon.

Why regulate trade?

The growing demand for live reef food fish, the destructive methods of obtaining and rearing reef fish, and the widening geographical scope of the trade all pose major sustainability concerns, raising the urgent need for more effective management.

Destructive fishing methods including cyanide fishing and fish bombing are still rampant in some parts of the region and are rapidly destroying critical coral reef ecosystems.

The capture of juvenile fish for aquaculture is likewise contributing to dwindling fish populations, threatening the food security and livelihood of millions.

“Up to 70 percent of reef fish in some places in the region are being taken from the ocean before they even have the opportunity to mature and reproduce, and this will have devastating effects on the delicate ocean food chain in the long term,” says Dr. Muldoon.

A management framework

The report puts forward the need for Coral Triangle countries to start analyzing governing laws and regulations on the capture and trade of live reef food fish with respect to existing international frameworks.

In addition to its analysis of key IUU issues, the report also examines relevant laws at the national level in Coral Triangle countries, looking at four key areas: ecosystem approach to fisheries management, port state measures, trade and market measures, and IUU fishing.

“Such an analysis will enable these countries to recommend appropriate legal and policy changes, both at the domestic and regional level, to address issues related to the control and management of live reef food fish trade,” concludes Dr. Muldoon. (30)

Download the full report at: