A billion-dollar business puts species and people at risk

Gland, Switzerland, 28 April 2013 - At least 12% of groupers - globally-important food fish species that live on coral and rocky reefs - face extinction, putting the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people around the world at risk, finds a report published today by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission's (IUCN SSC) Grouper and Wrasse Specialist Group.

The overall percentage of threatened groupers could be much higher as there is insufficient data for about 30% of the species, according to The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species(tm).

The study points to overfishing and the booming international luxury seafood trade as major threats to the survival of some grouper species, and to the livelihoods of those who depend on them for food and income. Its authors call for urgent conservation and management efforts to prevent further declines of these species.

"The declines in some grouper fisheries are alarming," says Yvonne Sadovy, Co-Chair of the IUCN SSC Grouper and Wrasse Specialist Group and lead author of the study. "Most of them are not managed at all and their natural ability to reproduce can't keep up with increasing demand. The rapidly growing international trade in groupers further reduces their populations."

More than 300,000 tons of groupers - or 90 million individuals - were caught globally in 2009, mostly in Asia, where they are particularly sought-after for the luxury restaurant trade. Groupers are the foundation of the US$ 750 million international live reef fish market centered in Hong Kong and growing in mainland China, where consumers are ready to pay over US$ 200 per kilogram of the species. They are also important food fish in developing countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, where pressure to export reef fish is growing, according to the authors.

Groupers are among those species that are most vulnerable to fishing because of their longevity, late sexual maturation and the fact that many form large mating groups known as 'spawning aggregations'. Despite their economic importance, few grouper fisheries are regularly monitored or managed, and many are in decline.

In the US Caribbean, the Nassau Grouper (Epinephelus striatus), which is commonly fished during its brief aggregation periods, has been essentially wiped out. Of the several dozen well-documented breeding grounds, only two continue to support large numbers of the species, and these have also been considerably reduced. In Southeast Asia and the Pacific, several species are considered to be threatened by the international trade, including the Square-tailed Coral Grouper (Plectropomus areolatus), also often taken from its spawning aggregations.

"Overfishing is like mismanaging a bank account," says Matthew Craig, Co-Chair of the IUCN SSC Grouper and Wrasse Specialist Group and one of the authors of the report. "The current fish population is our principle balance, hopefully earning interest in the form of new fish born. If those initial assets are continually withdrawn faster than the interest accumulates, the principle, that is the fish out there now, will be quickly depleted. It's easy to see how rapidly we could lose all the money, or in this case, all of the fish."

Improved management by source countries with priority given to local food security considerations, as well as better monitoring and control of international trade are urgently needed to reduce threats to these species, according to the report.

The study was published in the journal Fish and Fisheries. It is based on data accumulated by experts over a period of 20 years. The full report is available on request.

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Photo credit: Yvonne Sadovy - The Camouflage Grouper (Epinephelus polyphekadion) in a spawning aggregation. It is classified as Near Threatened on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due largely to aggregation fishing in the live reef fish trade.

About IUCN - IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, helps the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges. IUCN supports scientific research, manages field projects all over the world, and brings governments, NGOs, the UN and companies together to develop policy, laws and best practice. IUCN is the world's oldest and largest global environmental organization, with more than 1,000 government and NGO members and almost 11,000 volunteer experts in some 160 countries. IUCN's work is supported by over 1,000 staff in 60 offices and hundreds of partners in public, NGO and private sectors around the world.

About the Species Survival Commission - The Species Survival Commission (SSC) is the largest of IUCN's six volunteer commissions with a global membership of around 8,000 experts. SSC advises IUCN and its members on the wide range of technical and scientific aspects of species conservation, and is dedicated to securing a future for biodiversity. SSC has significant input into the international agreements dealing with biodiversity conservation.

About the IUCN SSC Grouper and Wrasse Specialist GroupIUCN SSC Groupers and Wrasses Specialist Group was established in 1998/9. Its mission is to promote the conservation, management and wise use of groupers and wrasses, and to enhance awareness of the vulnerability of this group of fishes, and of the habitats upon which they depend. The Specialist Group has 40 members from 18 countries. In December 2011 the group published Groupers of the World: A Field and Market Guide. The book is a detailed but easy-to-use guide to all of the more than 160 recognised species of these mostly large, colourful, tropical reef fishes. It is an indispensible resource that can be used by fisheries managers and conservationists to develop and implement conservation action to better protect groupers across the world.

About the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species(tm) - The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species(tm) (or The IUCN Red List) is the world's most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of plant, animal and fungi species. It is based on an objective system for assessing the risk of extinction of a species should no conservation action be taken. Species are assigned to one of eight categories of threat based on whether they meet criteria linked to population trend, population size and structure and geographic range. Species listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable are collectively described as 'Threatened'. The IUCN Red List is not just a register of names and associated threat categories. It is a rich compendium of information on the threats to the species, their ecological requirements, where they live, and information on conservation actions that can be used to reduce or prevent extinctions. The IUCN Red List is a joint effort between IUCN and its Species Survival Commission, working with its Red List partners BirdLife International; Botanic Gardens Conservation International; Conservation International; NatureServe; Microsoft; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Sapienza University of Rome; Texas A&M University; Wildscreen; and Zoological Society of London.