Sunday, April 13, 2008

Imposing giants - Global reef checks show the species have disappeared from even the best reefs over most of its range.

Imposing giants

HUMPHEAD wrasses (also known as Napoleon or Maori wrasse) are among the most beautiful, yet bizarre-looking, fish in the sea. With their bulbous lips, prominent forehead humps and a body pattern consisting of swirls, spots and lines in shadesof electric blue, grey and green, humpheads rank high on recre ational divers' "must see" list - yet they are being eaten out of existence,
Global reef checks show the species have disappeared from even the best reefs over most of its range. In Peninsular Malaysia's east coast, in islands such as Redang, Tioman and Tenggol, divers report that humpheads have vanished from reefs. Thefe is little information on humphead trade in the peninsula.
Humpheads occur patchily through- out the lndo-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. Though widely distributed, they are not abundant in the wild. Late sexual maturity (they breed only in the fifth year or later), slow growth, predictable spawning sites, hermaphroditism (sex reversal) and rarity make them highly vulnerable to over-exploitation.
Humpheads can grow up to 2.3m in length and 190kg in weight, and live up to 40 to 50 years. Once a female reaches a size of 20 to 22kg, it turns into a male and thrive to be the dominant male. In Pulau Layang-Layang, Dr Steve Oakley has observed the dominant male mating with over 100 females in one day.
Adult humpheads are usually found at reef slopes while juveniles, at the reef top. Their colours change with age - from silver-grey with yellow spots in juveniles to a deep olive green with black spots in adults. The males have prominent humps on their foreheads and are greener in colour.
Humpheads are omnivores and feed on molluscs, fish and crustaceans, among others. Oakley says as humphead numbers decline, the reef ecology will change. He says spiny sea urchins and crown-of-thorns starfish have invaded many reefs simply because humpheads, which prey on them, have declined in numbers.
Unlike some species of groupers, humpheads have not been commercially bred yet. Farming efforts have failed to go beyond the larval stage.
Apart from the humphead wrasse, various species of groupers are also netted in large numbers for the live reef fish trade, triggering yet another worry.
IUCN-World Conservation Union has listed eight species of groupers as "endangered" and intends to propose some for inclusion in the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species.

The Asian craving for a particular reef fish is emptying our seas - Eaten to the brink

Eaten to the brink

The Asian craving for a particular reef fish is emptying our seas.

HUNDREDS of fish cages bob up and down in the waters of Marudu Bay, off Kudat in 5abah. In these cages are sought-after marine delicacies such as groupers, lobsters and crabs, as well as a staggering number of humphead wrasses.
From the massive number of humpheads holed up in the floating pens, it is impossible to tell that this is a fish species classed as "endangered" by the IUCN-World Conservation Union and whose trade is governed by the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).
In Kudat, like in the Sabahan coastal towns of Tawau, Sandakan and Lahad Datu, fishermen continue to haul in humpheads
(Cheilinus undulatus). Several times a week, these fish and the popular groupers, are bundied alive into air-filled plastic bags which are then packed into polystyrene boxes, transported to Kota Kinabalu, and sent on the evening flight to Hong Kong or Singapore. It is a time-perfected technique which gets seafood, alive and swimming, into restaurants.
Sabah exported 27,000 tails of humphead last year - an alarming figure since scientists believe wild humphead stocks in Sabah waters are almost exhausted and aggressive fishing can only doom the species."
Once a normal table fish, humpheads (or su me/) somehow acquired a luxury tag in the early 1990s. Those who want to flaunt their wealth and success would indulge in this pricey fish in restaurants in Hong Kong, Singapore, China and Malaysia. What used to
sell for RM30 a kg in 1980 now goes for RM250 to RM300 a kg. Soon a scramble for the fish ensued.
Before long, fears of over-fishing pushed humpheads onto Appendix II of Cites in October 2004 - the first coral reef fish m be listed. Everyone thought all would be well since trade would now be controlled through import and export permits.
On the contrary, the Cites listing has done little for humpheads in Sabah as trade quotas remain high. Many are stumped by the export ration set by Sabah Fisheries Department last February - a monthly.200 tails for each of the 19 exporters. This works out to 45,600 tails annually, a figure deemed excessive by many, considering that it is five times Indonesia's annual quota of 8,900 tails.
"There is concern over how the export quota was set as the amount of humphead wrasse exported last year is even higher than
that before the Cites listing," says Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA) senior researcher Tan Kim Hooi, who has written a
policy document on humphead wrasse fisheries.
Doubts also arose over the scientific ratiohale behind the quota. A Cites Appendix II listing requires a non-detrimental finding (NDF) study to determine that trade will not threaten survival of the species. This study is only now being done.
Sabah Fisheries, World Wide Fund for Nature and wildlife trade monitoring body, Traffic, are assessing wild humphead populations in Pulau Lankayan, Kudat and Sempoma. They are expected to recommend a new export quota when the present one
expires in June.

Dwindling stocks
There are already signs that Asians' taste for steamed su mei is depleting wild stocks.
"Sabah's export of the high-value fish last year, although high, was just over half of the allowable quota. This can mean two things -either humphead populations are not really that big or the species has been over-fished," says Tan.
Also, Sabahan fishermen and traders all tell the same tale about the fish they call mameng: the catch has dropped as have fish sizes, when compared to the 90s.
"Ten years ago; i can get several fish of lOkg to 15kg in a week. Now, not even one in a month," says Kudat fish trader Wong Sin Hin. Today, the harvest is mostly juvenile fish which have to be fattened up in pens over three months or more, to reach the preferred plate size of 500g to lkg (about 30-40cm in length) before shipment.
Marine scientist Dr Steve Oak!ey warns that netting young fish before they have had a chance to breed will curtail future stocks of the species. Insisting on size restrictions for humphead harvests, he says breeding adult fish should be left in the sea. Better yet, he adds, humphead fisheries should be closed until it can be proven sustainable.
Oaldey, whose group the Tropical Research And Conservation Centre (Tracc) has surveyed reefs in Sabah and Sarawak, believes hump-heads are locally extinct over most of the South China Sea. Viable breeding populations exist in two islands protected by dive tourism: Sipadan and Layang-Layang. Another healthy group exists off Brunei - but only because it is within the Champion oil held, a protected "no fishing" zone. Tracc surveys of Layang-Layang between 1996 and 2002 found a big humphead population of 300 females, 21 males and 100 sub-adults. However, the fish were not seen last year. The reason, Oakley fears, could be because a Chinese vessel was allowed to fish there.
For now, Sabah's humphead catch figures remain impressive only because stocks are coming from the Philippines, which does not trade in the fish. Traders and fishermen in Kudat attest to this and the fact that Filipino fishers use cyanide to stun the fish, a destructive fishing method that can kill them as well as harm other marine life and the fragile coral reef habitat.
Lax enforcement, together with difficulties in patrolling Sabah's 1,600km of coastline and extensive fishing area of 51,360 sq km, share the blame for the prevalent fish smuggling.
As humpheads from foreign waters are traded as Sabah's, Tan of Mima says a generous export quota will deplete humphead
stocks not only in Malaysian waters, but also in Indonesia and the Philippines. Already, high demand and lucrative prices have fuelled poaching.
In December 2006, a Chinese vessel was detained at Tnbbataha Marine Park in Palawan, the Philippines, with 800 live fish
onboard, including 300 humpheads. In the same year, the Bunaken Marine Park in northem Sulawesi saw three cases of poaching
involving 207,450 and 36 humpheads.
Indonesia had set an annual export of 8,000 tails in 2005 but revised it to 8,900 tails last year, and only allows harvest from specified areas, namely Papua, Maluku and Nusa Tenggara.

But high exports of humpbeads is not the only concern. Equally worrying is their being eaten in large numbers in local restaurants. Chinese and Hong Kong tourists to Sabah routinely feast on su mei as it is cheaper than back home.
Cites. however, only regulates internationalm trade of wildlife. At the airport in Kota Kinabalu. frozen humpbeads are going for RM75 a kg. The sales personnel look puzzled when asked about the need for Cites permits.
To curb local consumption. Oakley wants national and state rules tightened to bar humphead fishing and give it the protected status that it needs.
"Humpheads are even more endangered than orang utans because there are more orang utans in Sabah forests than humpheads
in its waters. But you can still eat the fish in a KK (Kota Kinabalu) restaurant. We are decimating this species for a poor reason ... merely to put a fish on the table."
He adds that humpheads, being a major draw of the dive industry in Seychelles and Maldives, are totally protected there,
"Malaysia needs to realise that tourists bring in more money than selling the last few humpheads would."
Apart from harvest restrains, marine sanctuaries can further raise hope for humpheads. "With these protected areas, you will guard the habitat not only for humpheads but for other marine species too," says WWF marine scientist Dr Annadel Salvio Cabanban.
She says the recent survey of Pulau Lankayan off Sandakan, a popular dive destination, uncovered 23 juvenile humpheads,
with the largest one measuring 25cm. "With long-term protection of Lankayan, we might get a breeding population there in 20 years' time." And because humpbead larvae travel with ocean currents, Cabanban says those produced in other protected areas might reach our waters. SQ she is hopeful for the, species if more such sites are found.
Protection efforts should also not ignore seagrass beds and mangroves as both are important habitats for humpheads, serving as nursery ground for many reef fish. It is also crucial to safeguard the humphead's breeding grounds. Humpheads display aggregate spawning behaviour by gathering at specific sites to breed. Fishermen can target such sites, so Mima researcher Siti Nazatul lzura Mohd lshak recommends that they be documented and managed, such as by having a closed season during spawning period.
To safeguard humphead trade, Sabah Fisheries has held several workshops to inform traders about the risks of over-fishing
and Cites requirements. Come July, a new and most likely lower - export quota is expected. But are there enough humpbeads
left in the wild to repopulate our reefs? In the end, the fate of this fish hangs on just one simple gesture from people - don't order su mei for dinner.

Industrial pollution in China

Chinese farmers collecting dead fish hauled from a pond polluted by nearby factory discharges in south-west China's Chongqing municipality last month.

China faces a daunting task reaching its own goals to curb profligate energy use and serious pollution due to stubborn resistance in the booming industrial sector.

The Philippines expressed alarm over the commercial hunting of the thresher shark

File photo of fishermen transporting a load of harvested shark fins aboard a small outrigger from the port of Jolo town in the southern Philippine island of Sulu.

Last month, the Philippines expressed alarm over the commercial hunting of the thresher shark, considered a vulnerable species worldwide. philippine wildlife officials said there had been a wholesale slaughter of the 3m-fish for Chinese restaurants.

Dry spring in the Roman bridge over the Guadalquivir river in Cordoba

View of the Roman bridge over the Guadalquivir river in Cordoba, southern Spain.The 331m bridge was built by the Romans in the first century AD and remodelled last year. Records show Spain is experiencing one of its driest springs.

Water woes in Kampala

Water woes

A woman filling jugs with water at a water distribution point in the Nuguru Go Down Slum in Kampala.

The United Nations declared 2008 the international Year of Sanitation, and it made use of international Water Day on March 21 to highlight the issue.

"In teh world today, there are 15 million deaths caused by infectious diseases," said David Heyman, World Health Organisation assistant director general for health security and environment. "if we had good sanitation today, and good water supplies,we could decrease that immediately by two million-those children who are dying unnecessarily from diarrhoea diseases."

Clogged canals in downtown Jakarta

Clogged canals

Scavengers collecting polythene and other recyclable items from a polluted canal in downtown Jakarta.

Jakarta's water supply has suffered from regular cuts in recent years as pollution enters its main source of water through canals where communities live alongside, as well as from rivers that cross it on their way to the Java Sea.

an estimated 220 of the Palos Verdes blues butterflies existed in the wild in California

Males are largely blue, Females appear grey
CAPTIVE-breeding has raised the numbers of a rare butterfly species. Trouble is, there are not many places to release them.

Last year, an estimated 220 of the Palos Verdes blues butterflies existed in the wild in California, so few that experts feared they could be wiped out by a single hillside brush fire.

Yet in 12 days earlier last month, 2,400 blues - three times more than forecast - emerged at a laboratory housed at Moorpark College, about a 45-minute drive to the north-west from Los Angeles. But with a life span of three to 38 days, hundreds of the butterflies may die in captivity.

Biologists can't simply release the butterflies in any nice-looking garden or park. This is a federally protected species, and there are regulations to follow. Also, landowners must be willing to accept the butterflies with all their
protections. Permits ean take months. Officials fear publicity could attract butterfly poachers.

A coastal bluff on the Palos Verdes Peninsula was approved for release recently but with the large number of blues, federal wildlife officials are scrambling to identify more sites on the peninsula for the butterflies.