Napoleon wrasse are an iconic species of fish that inhabit the waters around the coral reefs in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. A distinctive hump on their forehead is the origin of their other common name - humphead wrasse. The adults are of striking deep blue colour and males can exceed 1.5 m.
Napoleon wrasse are also a gourmet dish in seafood restaurants in the Chinese-speaking world, including Mainland China, Hong Kong SAR and Singapore. The fish command very high prices, and the wild populations are becoming quickly depleted because too many are taken from the sea for this market. The largest exporters currently are Indonesia and the Philippines. The fish are caught and transported live to consumer countries.
Napoleon wrasse live at least 30 years in the wild and reach sexual maturity very late, at the age of 7-8 years. They are targeted by poachers long before they reach sexual maturity because juveniles are the perfect size for a banquet plate, and the meat of the young Napoleon is considered more tender than that of large mature fish. This undermines the very survival of the species - if too few juveniles reach adulthood, then there is not enough reproduction to replenish the population.
The days of these majestic, beautiful fish are numbered if urgent action is not taken to end or control the trade.
Since 2004, Napoleon wrasse have been classified as endangered and are listed in CITES, Appendix II. The Species Victim Impact Statements (SVIS) Initiative has prepared Species Victim Impact Statement for Napoleon Wrasse, and we closely follow the trade in the species in Hong Kong.
Until recently, the main market for Napoleon wrasse was Mainland China, and the species was openly available in upscale seafood restaurants. Fish markets in Hainan also sold large quantities of live Napoleon brought from South East Asian waters.
Since the crackdown on wildlife trade, which started in China around 2016, Napoleon wrasse have vanished from restaurants and seafood markets in China. The findings of the SVIS Initiative, however, confirm that the trade continues and has gone largely underground.
Media reports of the trade
In China, unlicensed possession and trade in Napoleon wrasse is a criminal offence - Napoleon wrasse is protected in the country as grade II nationally protected species. While it is widely known that the species is brought into the country illegally, there have been few reported examples of enforcement action being taken against those who trade or possesses Napoleon wrasse in China.
In August 2017, a maritime police patrol in Wanning, Hainan, inspected a fishing boat that was found to be carrying live Napoleon wrasse. Video footage from inside the boat shows around 30 live fish on board. The fishermen confessed to using diving equipment to catch Napoleon wrasse, around Nansha Islands in the South China Sea. They also bought live Napoleon fish from other fishermen.
In April 2020, China Customs published a report that a sailor was arrested for attempting to bring into the country dead Napoleon wrasse that he caught in South East Asia. The total value of the seizure was said to be 25,000 yuan.
Trade in Hainan
Hainan Island, the southernmost province of China, is the center of both fishing and fish trade. Formerly, large quantities of live Napoleon wrasse were sold on Hainan’s markets.
While Napoleon wrasse have disappeared from both the markets and the display tanks of local seafood restaurants, The SVIS initiative is aware that it is still available on request.
In January 2022, one seafood restaurant in Lingshgui County which did not have Napoleon wrasse either on display nor on the menu, sold dishes of it for 1,300 yuan per pound. Meanwhile, prices in upscale restaurants in the city of Sanya, a tourism hub, were reported at around 3,000 yuan per pound. The owners of restaurants said that the prohibition of trade in Napoleon wrasse had caused a drop in supply and a sharp rise in prices.
In 2022, Napoleon wrasse was also available on request in seafood restaurants in Hainan’s provincial capital of Haikou, but the main seafood market in Haikou did not openly sell Napoleon wrasse as it formerly had done.
Many records of restaurants and traders dealing in Napoleon wrasse in Mainland China can also be found online .
WeChat Channels is a feature that allows WeChat (the most widely used Chinese messaging, social media and payment app) user to post short videos. Such videos are widely used to promote and advertise various products and services. The SVIS Initiative has noted a number of WeChat accounts held by restaurants and seafood dealers in Mainland China to be advertising Napoleon wrasse in 2021 and 2022.
The cities where Napoleon wrasse was sold included Guangzhou, Xiamen, Taiyuan and Longyan. One Xiamen restaurant that advertised Napoleon wrasse is an established chain with branches in the several major Chinese cities.
The posts advertised Napoleon as exclusive, luxury item. Typically, a post announces the delivery of Napoleon wrasse, sometimes of a single fish, and urges the customers to book as soon as possible.
One Xiamen restaurant advertised Napoleon wrasse as good for health:
“The meat, whose juice is very delicate, melts as soon as it enters your mouth. The meat has a high protein content but a low-fat content. Not only does it have all the amino acids that the human metabolism needs, it is also rich in inorganic salts, iron, calcium, phosphorus, and all kinds of vitamins. Because the skin of sumei is rich in nutritional colloidal matter, it is called good-for-beautiful-skin-fish.”
One Guangzhou-based seafood supplier and restaurant posted in October 2021: “Napoleon wrasse – arrived at the shop in the dead of the night! Without a doubt – a luxury seafood item, 398 yuan per pound!”
A seafood mall in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, posted in June 2021: “New product today: Napoleon wrasse arrived. Because it is an expensive name, it is hard to come by, if you want it, get in touch urgently – I only have one!”
Captive breeding of Napoleon wrasse
China now accounts for half of world’s aquaculture production, and a large variety of fish species are bred on commercial scale, but Napoleon wrasse are not one of them.
Commercial breeding of Napoleon wrasse is not considered viable. One problem is the challenge of feeding the larvae because of their very small-sized mouths. Another is that Napoleon wrasse take many years to reach marketable size.
Capturing Napoleon wrasse from the wild is the only practical option for traders at present. While some operations in Indonesia claim that they ‘ranch’ the fish, their Napoleon, in fact, come from the wild. Such “ranching” only threatens the species further.
Attempts to captive breed Napoleons wrasse have been made in China. The methodology to captive-breed Napoleon wrasse was even included in the 12th Five-Year Plan’s 863 Program – a plan to develop domestic technologies to break the dependence on foreign countries.
In July 2017, Hainan University’s Chen Guohua announced successful captive breeding of Napoleon wrasse. This was achieved at the University’s base in Lingshui, Hainan, by Hainan Blue Ocean Aquaculture Co Ltd and was the result of 8 years of research using fish stock bought in the Maldives. It was reported that 11 kilograms of roe and almost 8 kilograms of milt were obtained, with 50% successful fertilization rate and 54,000 juveniles hatching. Chen predicted large scale farming of Napoleon wrasse within 5 years, but there has since been no record of captive-bred Napoleon wrasse on sale in China.
The University of Hong Kong are at the forefront of the campaign to save Napoleon Wrasse.
Napoleon wrasse have distinctive stripe markings on their faces. Every fish has a unique pattern of these markings (similar to a fingerprint), and individual Napoleon wrasse can, therefore, be told apart using these markings.
The distinctive patterns on the face of Napoleon wrasse. Each pattern is unique and can be used to identify individual fish.
In Hong Kong, seafood restaurants continue to serve Napoleon, and live fish are displayed for the customers in tanks. The trade is supposed to involve only small numbers of fish legally imported to Hong Kong. In an attempt to ensure the trade is legal, the government requires each trader to apply for an import permit for the fish.
However, some Hong Kong restaurants have been found to “launder” Napoleon – using the same individual permit for a conveyor belt of fish that are brought into Hong Kong illegally. The restaurant owners, convinced that nobody can tell the fish apart, assume that they are
beyond the reach of the law.
However, last year, the University of Hong Kong’s Swire Institute of Marine Science launched a free phone app which can identify individual Napoleon wrasse, and be used to undermine the laundering market.
The app, ‘Saving Face’, was developed by Corvidae and is free to download. Any user who sees a Napoleon wrasse on display in a Hong Kong restaurant can take a photo of the fish and the app will run the image through a databank of “fingerprints” – facial patterns of legally imported Napoleon. If there is no match, the fish is an illegal import.
The prosecution of illegal traders could be made much easier if similar action was taken across the entire Asian region where Napoleon wrasse are caught and consumed.
In order to stop wildlife trafficking, transnational cooperation is key. The Species Victim Impact Statements (SVIS) Initiative has provided support to law enforcement authorities and conservation organizations in 12 countries globally. Our work in the Asia-Pacific region has seen sentences for wildlife crime rise significantly, as the impact of the illegal trade in endangered species is more widely understood.