Expedition to the Spice Islands: A Refuge for an Endangered Species

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Published on November 20th, 2012  |  Discuss This Article  

This is the third in a multi-part series chronicling Conservancy scientist Alison Green’s trip with the Coral Triangle Center to conduct a rapid marine assessment in the Banda Sea.

Humphead Wrasse, known as the Napoleon Wrasse in the Banda Islands, is one of the largest species of coral reef fishes, growing up to two meters long and weighing up to 190 kg. This species can live past 30 years of age and reaches maturity at less than 5 years of age.

Napoleon Wrasse are never very abundant, although they do form small aggregations (ranging from 10 to over 100) to reproduce. They also change sex from female to male: most small adults are female and it is mainly the males that exceed 1 meter in length. Sometimes around spawning time, you can see a harem of Napoleon Wrasse comprised of one large male and several smaller females.

This species is a carnivore that feeds on large invertebrates (snails and crabs) and small fishes, making it an important link in the food chain. Because of its size, coloration and behavior (large males are very curious and often approach divers), this magnificent fish is also a favorite of the scuba diving industry throughout the Indo-Pacific Region.

Unfortunately, since Napoleon Wrasse are highly prized in the live reef food fish export trade, they are heavily targeted in Southeast Asia. Since Napoleon Wrasse are particularly sensitive to fishing pressure, their numbers and size have declined substantially in many areas, and in some places they face local extinction. Consequently, this species is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Fishing for Napoleon Wrasse is not allowed in the Banda Islands, and since local fisheries are primarily focused on pelagic species (particularly tuna), local fishers generally comply with the ban.

The commitment of local stakeholders to protecting fish here in the Banda Islands was also demonstrated recently when 22 Napoleon Wrasse were captured illegally for the live reef food fish trade. The local communities informed the Banda Sea Conservation Group (comprised of the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, conservation groups and the Navy) of this infringement, and they worked together to release the fish. The owner of the fishing business was also prosecuted for this and other offenses and is now in jail.

Consequently, the Banda Islands are one of the few refuges for Napoleon Wrasse in Southeast Asia. We saw Napoleon Wrasse on every dive—in many regions, that would be a rarity. Our fish team on this survey—Andreas Muljadi from the Coral Triangle Center and Bapak Yance Hehuat and Bapak Noke Rijoli from the National Institute of Science—recorded up to 20 individuals on a single dive and up to 15 in a single group.

This is a great success not only for conservation, but also for the local communities. As news spreads about the number of Napoleon Wrasse here in Banda, it is likely to benefit the local tourism industry—provided the local authorities and communities are able to continue to protect this endangered species in the face of constant pressure from the live reef food fish trade.

(Image 1: A Napoleon Wrasse in the Banda Islands. Image 1 credit: Marthen Welly. Image 2: A large male Napoleon Wrasse and his harem of 10 smaller females on the reef slope in the Banda Islands. Image 2 credit: Andreas Muljadi. Image 3: Two Napoleon Wrasse (the big ones!) on the reef slope in the Banda Islands. Image 3 credit: Andreas Muljadi.)

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