Chinese New Year is just around the corner. As families prepare for one of the city’s most anticipated festivals of the year, shops and homes are gradually becoming covered in hearty shades of red. In the coming weeks, the year of the Dog will be welcomed with the gathering of friends and families around dinner tables and the passing of red packets or lai see (利是) from the old to the young. Indeed, more than any other time of the year, there is an inexhaustible demand for the colour red. Amongst the celebrations, however, the need for red has brought on a grim fate for some unlucky fish.
Groupers have always been a loved part of traditional Chinese banquets – and red-coloured groupers particularly win a special place in times of celebration. A recent study of live reef food fish composition in Hong Kong’s wet markets has found groupers were the most frequently encountered fish group, and the encounter rate for the reddish Leopard coralgrouper (Plectropomus leopardus) was as high as 98%. The prominence of the species in local markets may well have been influenced by the overlapping of the survey period with Chinese New Year.
While the Leopard coralgrouper is reported to live to about 17 years, many individuals are unable to reach this age. The Leopard coralgrouper has since 2004 been listed as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species – just one category below being considered under threat of extinction. Their vulnerability might be associated with an unfortunate match between the species’ interesting biology and our consumption practices.
The Leopard coralgrouper is a species that can experience sex change at some point in its life cycle – a trait common among some fishes. Individuals of the Leopard coralgrouper typically develop as females throughout the initial stages of their lifecycles, and when they reach a certain age or size, undergo a truly remarkable transformation from which formerly female individuals will emerge as males.
Thus, only the fish that have a chance to reach a certain size may undergo this transformation. Our current consumption practices, however, have created a significant hurdle for the species as we demand the ‘plate-sized’ (≈ 25 – 40 cm Total Length) fish that may not have reached the minimum size for sexual transformation. The result is a sexual ratio bias leaving either fewer males (where fewer individuals were able to develop into males before being removed from the ocean) or fewer females (as the majority of fish removed are females, leaving only males behind) depending on the circumstances. This further challenges the species’ ability to successfully reproduce and replenish populations already pressured by over-fishing.
Furthermore, the Leopard coralgrouper participates in spawning aggregations – an event also not uncommon in some fish groups. Once a year (or at different intervals depending on location), at a specified time, masses of the species swim in from all over the world’s oceans to gather at specific locations for the purpose of spawning. In an act that might be described as romantic, males and females travel for miles and miles, often risking their own lives, to meet their mates and ensure the continuation of the next generation. Fishermen who have learned the specific spawning sites and schedules are tempted by the easy catch of hundreds or thousands of the aggregating species. In many places, these spawning sites are not protected, and the consequence is the loss of masses of a single species at once.
Unfortunately, the Leopard coralgrouper’s story is not unique. In fact, its fate already has been lived out at least once before by the original festive red-coloured grouper – the Hong Kong grouper (Epinephelus akaara). Pressured by a similar consumption demand, the Hong Kong grouper became listed as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species by 2003, when global populations were estimated to have declined by more than 63% over just three generations.
With this decline, the local appetite made a swift shift to the Leopard coralgrouper and other red groupers, and the disappearance of the Hong Kong grouper was barely noticed. While the Leopard coralgrouper has a relatively broader distribution range, it is feared that the species will eventually meet the same fate.
How, as consumers, are we to respond? To lay off red fish may be unrealistic in Hong Kong. Fortunately, sustainable alternatives do exist for the Leopard coralgrouper. The 2017 edition of WWF-Hong Kong’s sustainable seafood guide advises against Leopard coralgrouper sourced from Southeast Asia, where fisheries lack management and population declines for the species are evident. Leopard coralgrouper sourced from Australia, on the other hand, is listed as “Recommended” on the guide. There, fisheries are locally managed and regulated in the trade.
The Leopard coralgrouper is by no means the only species in trouble, and in moving towards sustainability Hong Kong must review its consumption practices and management of the live reef food fish trade.
In another recently released report, “Going, Going, Gone” assessing Hong Kong’s live reef food fish trade, several recommendations were made for changes to the local legal and regulatory framework to keep up with current trade and consumption practices for live reef food fish. As consumers, it is important to encourage our government to make the necessary updates.
As we enter into the New Year, why not take your first step toward change and ask restaurants for sustainable seafood options? Follow local sustainable seafood guides and pay attention to what you eat – you may be surprised at how many different types of seafood, not just fish, a banquet includes. Let the Year of the Dog be the year for sustainable seafood choices.
Last but not least, Kung Hei Fat Choi! We wish everyone “年年有「魚」” and plenty of fish to spare, year after year.