The humphead wrasse, also called Napoleon wrasse, is a coral fish named for their bulging, protruding forehead. They are gigantic - more than 6 feet long and up to 400 pounds - and can live for more than 30 years. They can be found in coral reefs. Humphead wrasse eat mollusks, starfish, crustaceans, and other hard shelled quarry. They have distinctive looks, with diamond patterning, diagonal lines behind their eyes, and fleshy lips. They live in the waters off the coast of nearly 50 countries.
The main reason the humphead wrasse is endangered is overfishing and habitat loss. The humphead wrasse is an expensive luxury delicacy once eaten only by royalty. Recently in 2004, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora) and the government of countries near where humphead wrasse live have added more regulations against fishing. While many countries have banned fishing of humphead wrasse altogether, Indonesia has only limited it to 2,000 wrasse a year. This may be too high, especially because ⅕ of all humphead wrasse can be found in the waters of Indonesia. Overfishing has gotten so bad that it is rare to see mature humphead wrasse, despite regulations. This points to illegal fishing, though it is harder to detect this because of social media and the internet. It is also hard to tell whether fish are ranched (taken from the wild young and raised in captivity) or wild. Ranching still impacts humphead wrasse populations in the wild because it removes young wrasse before they can reproduce. Indonesia recently put a quota of 40,000 on ranched wrasse. Some wrasse are smuggled into Hong Kong, one of the main places wrasses are sold, with similar looking animals like groupers, without permits. The amount of wrasse being sold in restaurants exceeds the legal number, and many are not being reported. For example, 8,000 ranched wrasse were exported from Indonesia and disappeared, sold without being reported. People in charge of preventing this usually only check if they’ve been tipped off. The destruction of coral reefs because of global warming and destructive fishing practices also impacts the humphead wrasse. Because humphead wrasse are very slow to reproduce, they are especially threatened by these issues.
Humphead Wrasse being stored in a tank before being sold in Hong Kong. Image by Michèle Dépraz.
Crown-of-thorn starfish is a starfish that damages coral reefs and is eaten by humphead wrasse. Without wrasse to keep them in check, coral reefs would be harmed. The coral reef is a balanced ecosystem, with every creature contributing to its stability. Without one of them, the whole ecosystem is thrown out of balance. This is especially true without coral, the basis for the entire reef. While fishing for humphead wrasse, coral is often destroyed because of the destructive methods used.
One way people are helping the humphead wrasse is using technology. Yvonne Sadovy is working on an app that would be able to, using the wrasse’s distinct facial features, compare humphead wrasse in restaurants (wrasse are often kept in tanks prior to being cooked) to a database of legally sold wrasse. However, for this app, called Saving Face, to work, it would need a lot of data and to be widely used by people who deal with wrasse and, if there was no match, people would need to go to environmental law enforcement themselves. Cloudy water or bad lighting could affect the app’s ability to match humphead wrasse.
Happily, the humphead wrasse was added to the IUCN red list and trade is now regulated by CITES. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund are buying back humphead wrasse from local fishermen and bringing them back to coral reefs. More than 860 wrasse have been rereleased. You can support efforts to add the humphead wrasse to environmental laws protecting them.
Also, you can tell people about the humphead wrasse. Maybe that way, consumers and restaurant providers alike will understand more about the endangered fish they are cooking and eating. Also, support efforts to add the humphead wrasse to environmental laws protecting them.
Humphead Wrasse. (n.d.). Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/humphead-wrasse
Wwf, S., & Handler, P. (2020, March 24). The king of the coral reefs is disappearing. Here's why. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/03/facial-recognition-humphead-wrasse-disappearing/
(n.d.). Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/fish/humphead_wrasse/
Cover image by David Doubilet