Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 35 – The Humphead Wrasse

Humphead wrasse

Photo: Jeff Rotman / WWF

The humphead wrasse is one of the ocean’s most spectacular sights.  Despite this, it has become a plated delicacy for indiscriminate diners.  This huge fish, it can grow up to seven feet in length and weigh in at anything in the region of four hundred and twenty pounds, is being hunted mercilessly for its flesh.

But, looking at a wild creature and saying,  “I don’t care how many of you are left  –  I think you’re really tasty, so I’m going to eat you anyway”  –  is just not acceptable.  So, if you see it on the menu  –  order something else. Thankfully, this is a recognised fact and, for this and other reasons for concern, the humphead wrasse has now become widely protected. Needless to say, they are still taken and killed despite the penalties.

They are sedentary creatures who, resting in caves at night, are highly vulnerable to unscrupulous divers and fishermen.  At night, scuba divers are able to sneak up on them unawares, using flash-lights, and simply take them or kill them.  Fishermen use cyanide, stunning them for capture.  The humphead wrasse is one of the most expensive live reef fishes in the world.  This species cannot be hatchery reared, meaning all those traded come from the wild population, making trade restrictions especially important.

It is often solitary, but has been seen in small social groups consisting of a limited number of male, females and juveniles.  Humphead wrasses possess a remarkable immunity to the toxic spines of starfish, boxfish and sea hares.

An adult humphead wrasse can change its colour, the shape of its body, and even its sex. Which it has been known to do when there has been an absence of the opposite sex.

Steep outer reef slopes, channel slopes, lagoon reefs up to 300 feet in depth. Juveniles seem to prefer staghorn coral thickets, seagrasses and bushy macroalgae.
They are widely distributed throughout the Indo-Pacific region, though nowhere are they common.
What they eat
Mainly molluscs, fishes, sea urchins and crustaceans.  With their sharp, hard teeth, they are also known to prey upon the toxic crown-of-thorns starfish, boxfish and sea hares.
Habitat loss and degradation, spear-fishing at night with scuba gear, illegal fishing, destructive fishing techniques, including the use of sodium cyanide and dynamite, and intensive capture for the Live Reef Food Fish Trade (LRFFT) (the use of cyanide has been found to be the most efficient way to take the wrasse, which is not only directly detrimental to the wrasse but also has a devastating effect on the coral which they depend on for shelter).  As a food, the flesh of the humphead wrasse is highly sought after.  Dwindling numbers are pushing the price up causing a further decline in numbers. Capture for the export trade in juvenile humphead wrasse for the marine aquarium trade is also a large problem.
Status: Endangered
The humphead wrasse was placed on the IUCN Red List as Endangered in 2004 and was listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in October 2004.
The WWF is working with others to attempt to re-populate the coral reefs with this extraordinary species. Live fish, captured for resale by local fishermen, have been bought back by the WWF and released into the wild. Almost nine hundred have been returned to their natural environment, by this method, since 2010.
IUCN Groupers and Wrasses Specialist Group aims to raise awareness throughout the region. In many areas this fish is now protected.

“Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace”
Albert Schweitzer