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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 September, 2004, 08:01 GMT 09:01 UK
Protection plea for reef fish
Humphead wrasse, WWF
The humphead wrasse is a prized delicacy around South East Asia
A rare reef fish called the humphead wrasse should be guarded from overfishing, experts have claimed.

The WWF and the IUCN-World Conservation Union are set to ask an international trade watchdog to include the fish on its list of protected species.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) will have its biennial meeting in October to review the vulnerability of several species.

Conservationists hope the humphead wrasse will receive a protected status.

"This giant coral reef fish could soon be eaten out of existence if governments don't manage the way it is currently caught and traded," said Clarus Chu, of WWF-Hong Kong.

Distinctive fish

The UK government and EU member states are also calling for tighter controls. When they convene for the Cites conference in Bangkok next month they will suggest the humphead wrasse is included in Appendix II, which would allow stricter fishing regulations.

This giant coral reef fish could soon be eaten out of existence
Clarus Chu, of WWF-Hong Kong
"We believe there is a very strong scientific case to upgrade the humphead wrasse to Appendix II," UK environment minister Elliot Morley told BBC News Online.

The humphead wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus, is a distinctive coral reef fish, which lives in the Indo-Pacific. It can grow to a hefty 2m in length.

The species is naturally uncommon and, because individuals live for up to 30 years, it has a low rate of population growth.

Its rarity, and the fact that it is a prized delicacy, means the humphead wrasse can retail at around US$130/kg, making it one of the most valuable fish in the live reef fish trade.

Cites 'reluctant'

Species have come and gone long before humans took over this planet, it's part of evolution
Pete, UK

The humphead wrasse is caught using cyanide, which stuns the fish, before it is shipped to restaurants in Hong Kong or China, where it waits in tanks to be chosen by hungry diners.

Because the adult fish reaches a size too big for most dinner plates, it is usually captured in a juvenile state.

This affects the population's breeding dynamics, making it less able to recover from a dent in numbers.

"Most consumers prefer plate-sized fish, which means the fish in trade are very young," said Clarus Chu. "Not only is the species gravely threatened but cyanide is often used to stun and capture the fish, which destroys the coral reef, too."

Although management measures have been introduced in a number of countries, illegal and unregulated harvesting still occurs, causing the IUCN to promote the species from the status of Vulnerable to Endangered.

Cites is traditionally reluctant to include fish species on Appendix II, because of the impact on the fishing industry. But with so many groups fighting the humphead wrasse's corner, there is good chance it will be granted protection.

"Putting fish on Appendix II is controversial with Cites," said Mr Morley. "But we believe that in [the case of the humphead wrasse] the science is overwhelming."

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