Frankenstein’s Fish via The Coral Triangle

“AquAdvantage® Salmon…advanced hybrid salmon designed to grow faster.” Could you get a starker strapline for the commodification of fauna? As the challenges of feeding an exploding global population continue to grow, branded animals like these GM salmon produced by biotech company Aquabounty Technologies could be commonplace, but what about the dangers? GM salmon made headlines recently, with some fearing threats to wild stocks in the Atlantic if they were to escape.

Hybrid grouper on the other hand get almost no media attention, yet they potentially pose a far greater danger.  Hybridization is big business in South East Asia, where aquaculture businesses are interbreeding valuable grouper species  in a bid to create a fast growing  super fish.

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Live grouper are highly prized in Hong Kong, Mainland China, Taiwan and other parts of South East Asia. They crowd tanks in seafood restaurants and are ubiquitous at Chinese wedding banquets and other formal occasions, where tradition demands they are served. Grouper can  sell for more than US$100 a kilo and very large or rare specimens for much more. The market is huge – in Hong Kong alone, a staggering 3.6 million grouper are consumed each year.

But demand has led to rampant overfishing across South East Asia’s Coral Triangle bioregion.  Fishermen often use cyanide to stun fish, destroying coral reefs in the process. According to a recent University of Hong Kong study, one in ten grouper species face extinction if current trends aren’t arrested.

On the face of it, advanced aquaculture techniques offer a way of fulfilling market demand while reducing the pressure on wild populations. Grouper are nurtured first in hatcheries from cultivated eggs and then in coastal cages or sometimes factories on land. The goal of hybridization is to achieve the holy trinity of rapid growth rates, resilience and superior taste.

“Hybridization of grouper isn’t new,” says Geoffrey Muldoon, a marine biologist with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) “In 1996 the University of Malaysia in Sabah, Borneo produced a giant grouper/tiger grouper, dubbed the Sabah Grouper specifically for live reef fish food markets in Hong Kong,” he explains. The hybrid was a huge success with consumers and a boom followed. “Fast forward almost two decades and the science of grouper hybridisation has exploded,” says Muldoon.

In the early days, scientists only experimented with cross breeding natural grouper species. But then researchers in Taiwan went a step further. They began breeding hybrids with naturals and then different hybrids with each other. According to Irwin Wong, a live fish trader in Sabah, at last count, there were at least 12 new hybrid grouper variants and research is continuing in what has become a race to create a super grouper.

GM salmon are farmed inland, making escape relatively unlikely.  But grouper are often kept in cages at sea.. “The fact is, hybrids may already have escaped,” says Wong. “If there’s a storm, fish often get free.” His fear is that two hybrids will breed in the wild. “If that happened, the effects on the ecosystem could be devastating.”

Grouper are hermaphrodites – or monandric protogynous hermaphrodites to give them their full title. Early in their growth cycle they are females, but in adulthood they can change into males. No one knows the precise trigger for this transformation, though size, age and environmental factors all play a part. Hybrid groupers in captivity are all female – but in the wild they could easily change sex, according to Wong. Which brings up the possibility of a sort of “X-Grouper” wreaking havoc with the food chain.

The current scientific consensus is that hybrid grouper are infertile – but since their reproductive cycle is still not fully understood, this is far from fact. At an Intergovernmental Forum of the six Coral Triangle countries in early 2013, experts agreed that “the hybridization of grouper has reached an alarming level, that escapes pose an as yet unknown risk to local wild populations and that this issue needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

Experts are meeting again to discuss the issue at the world’s first World Coral Reef Conference in Indonesia on 16 May.

The live reef fish for food trade is a notoriously under regulated industry. It’s also highly lucrative – worth as much as US$1 billion annually. But consumption tends to follow a boom and bust cycle. Once the Sabah Grouper became readily available its per kilo value dropped dramatically. “The pursuit of a faster growing hybrid species is understandable, but there is little evidence to suggest patterns of consumer demand truly merit more efforts on hybridisation,” says Muldoon. He believes the industry needs to self-regulate for hybridisation to become viable. More research on both the science and the market for groupers is desperately needed – but criminal elements and an industry wide culture of secrecy makes this difficult.

In the meantime, the possibility of a “Frankenfish” wreaking havoc across reef ecosystems in the Coral Triangle is a real and growing danger.

via FRANKENSTEIN’S FISH | Stories | The Coral Triangle.

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Sustainable Fisheries Development Fund Invites Applications

The Sustainable Fisheries Development Fund has opened for applications. The Fund aims to help the local fisheries community move towards sustainable or high value-added operations so that the trade can enhance its overall competitiveness and cope with new challenges. This will allow fishermen to improve their ability to cope with the changing operating environment as well as their own livelihoods.

A spokesman for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) said: “Capture fisheries in Hong Kong are affected by the depletion of fisheries resources and the trawl ban. Despite the opportunities available as a result of the restructuring of the fisheries industry, many local fishermen remain cautious about the prospects of growth while others are held back by the risks and technical challenges involved. Meanwhile, aquaculture also needs support for modernisation.

“Against this background, the administration has identified five possible areas for the fishing community and related stakeholders to put the Fund to good use, in furtherance of the objectives of placing the further development of the industry on a sustainable track. Projects not falling within such areas will also be considered as long as they are in line with the purpose of the Fund and meet the assessment criteria.

“The five areas are exploring new opportunities in the South China Sea, development of sustainable practices for fishing operations in Hong Kong waters, aquaculture development, accreditation and marketing of local fisheries products, and fisheries resources monitoring and enhancement.”

In vetting applications, the Advisory Committee on Sustainable Fisheries Development Fund (the Advisory Committee) will give due consideration to the project needs, feasibility and expected outcomes. The projects should contribute in a direct and practical way towards the sustainable development of the local fisheries industry. The benefits they bring about must accrue to the local fisheries community as a whole.

In general, the projects should be non-profit-making, but commercial projects may also be considered. Applicants will be required to draw up detailed business plans and budgets for the Advisory Committee to scrutiny. Projects involving commercial elements will be funded on a dollar-for-dollar matching basis. The Government’s contribution will be limited to no more than 50 per cent of the total project cost.

Eligible applicants include legal entities that have demonstrated a close connection with the local fisheries industry such as local incorporated companies, registered fisheries co-operatives, non-profit-making fisheries organisations, non-governmental organisations or social enterprises, as well as academic and research institutions in Hong Kong.

Applications are accepted throughout the year and the Advisory Committee will meet regularly to vet the applications. Completed application forms, together with information of the applicant demonstrating their connection with the local fisheries industry, should reach the Secretariat for the Fund at least six months prior to the commencement of the project.

Application guidelines and forms can be downloaded from the AFCD website (www.afcd.gov.hk) while hard copy is available from the Secretariat for the Fund and the liaison offices of the Fish Marketing Organization.

Source: The Fish Site, 11/7/2014

Hong Kong gets its ASC sustainable seafood guide

The latest edition of the Sustainable Seafood Guide includes information for seafood consumers in Hong Kong shopping for responsibly farmed fish.

For the first time, the guide educates on the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) logo for responsible aquaculture.

“This is a great step forward in informing Asian seafood customers about the ASC. By choosing seafood with the ASC logo, shoppers can make a difference and help protecting oceans, vulnerable marine environments and local farm communities,” said ASC’s CEO Chris Ninnes.

There are currently 1,120 ASC certified seafood products available in 37 countries across the globe.

“Not only is our market share growing in Asia, but we have an expanding base of certified farms in the region including Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam; and we anticipate strong future growth,” Ninnes said.

The Hong Kong Sustainable Seafood Guide is produced by World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) Hong Kong.

The methodology that the guide is based on has been developed by WWF, Seafood Choices Alliance, North Sea Foundation and the Marine Conservation Society. Fish guides can now be found in 18 countries around the globe.

The ASC on-pack logo was launched in 2012. All ASC labelled products can be traced back through the entire supply chain to a responsible managed fish farm.

Source: Undercurrent News, 9/7/2014

Red Tides, Fish Kills and iPhone Apps

Here are some images of some pretty right red tide patches. But what on earth is it that makes the water go red like this and is it dangerous?

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Floating patch of red tide in Discovery Bay 4/6/2014

Red tide is the collective name for phytoplankton blooms that tend to colour the water. Phytoplankton is made up of microscopic plants that drift through the sea. When conditions are right (mostly when there is nutrient-rich water and a stable water column) some species of these micro-algae form red tides. Depending on the pigments, the massive growth of algal cells may turn the water into pink, red, brown, reddish-brown, deep green or other colours.

"Pink" Red Tide on Tai Pak Beach
“Pink” Red Tide washing ashore on Tai Pak Beach in Discovery Bay 4/6/2014

 

Red tides are a relatively common sight in Hong Kong with 20-30 reports a year. The immediate reaction from most people is to think that they are the result of some terrible pollution. In fact the phytoplankton species are perfectly natural and normally occur in Hong Kong waters, but under certain conditions they can grow faster and form patches on the sea surface which we call ‘blooms’. Phytoplankton blooms by different species occur all over the world and are often seen by satellites with colour sensors.

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Bloom of the phytoplankton species Emiliania huxleyi in the English Channel as seen from space by a satellite. The light blue comes from the seawater and the white calcium shell of the algal species.

Some red tides produce natural toxins, and can cause depletion of dissolved oxygen or other harmful effects, and are generally described as harmful algal blooms (HAB). The most conspicuous effects of these kinds of red tides are the deaths of marine and coastal species of fish, birds, marine mammals, and other organisms. This happens either as a direct effect of the toxins produced or because of oxygen depletion (known as hypoxia) which happens when the algae die and bacteria consume all the oxygen in decomposing the dead algae.
Only some species involved in red tides however are toxin-producing and cause fish kills. The bioluminescing species Noctiluca scintillans which I wrote about in an earlier post, is not toxic but still can cause red tides.
For Hong Kong this is an economic concern because of the many fish farms and aquaculture areas. When a toxic red tide drifts into a fish farming zone only early warning will help the farmers avoid large economic losses from fish kills by temporarily evacuating their fish cages or transferring their fish to tanks.
The Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation Department (AFCD) of Hong Kong runs a red tide monitoring network which relies partly on fish farmers and members of the public.  The AFCD follows up reports by taking samples from the red tides and identifying the contributing species under the microscope to determine the risk to aquaculturists and the public. The majority of the reports are caused by non-toxic species. If you would like to know more about the network, the AFCD now has a fantatsitc  app for iPhone and Android (pictured below) with weekly updates and the functionality to report red tide sightings (which I proudly did today) with this new app, including submitting  pictures. (I would also recommend some of the other Hong Kong apps for marine enthusiasts out there:  HK Geopark, Wetland Park, Reef Check, Red Tide Information Network and the WWF Seafood Guide).

 

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The AFCD’s “Red Tide” App for iPhone (also for Android). You can get weekly updates and also report red tide sightings. Available in Chinese (traditional and simpliefied) and English.

 

The AFCD started to record the occurrences of red tide since 1975. From 1975 to 2013, a total of 875 red tide incidents were recorded in Hong Kong waters. Amongst these incidents, only 27 were associated with fish kills.

77 algal species have formed red tides in Hong Kong, but majority of them are harmless. 19 of these species are considered harmful or toxic. Amongst these harmful/toxic algal species, only 5 of them caused fish kills and the other two caused contamination of shellfish by toxin in Hong Kong. The red tide associated fish kill events were mostly recorded in the 80’s and early 90’s.

So are there dangers to human health? If a red tide is identified as a harmful algal bloom (HAB) – then, yes, there is a risk:
The consumption of shellfish (e.g. mussels, clams) is one of the most common ways for algal toxins to impact human health. Each species has it’s own toxin so the health effects they cause are also varied. One example is Ciguatera fish poisoning. This type of fish poisoning is caused by eating fish that contain toxins produced by a the marine microalgae Gambierdiscus toxicus, which has been recorded in Hong Kong waters. Barracuda, black grouper,blackfin snapper, king mackerel, groupers and any large predatory fish can carryciguatoxins. People who haveciguatera may experience nausea, vomiting, and neurologic symptoms such as tingling fingers or toes. They also may find that cold things feel hot and hot things feel cold.Ciguatera has no cure. Symptoms usually go away in days or weeks but can last for years. People who haveciguateracan be treated for their symptoms. In Hong Kong with its rapacious appetite for seafood, ciguatera fish poisoning occurs quite frequently. For example, in 2004 it made up 7.9% of all food poisoning cases recorded that year. In June 2013, fourteen men and five women, aged 23 to 71, fell ill with ciguatera poisoning after eating coral reef fish at a restaurant in Sok Kwu Wan (Lamma Island). The fish in this case actually came from the Pratas/Dongsha Islands out in the South China Sea. Ciguatoxin’s is very stable, so cooking, drying or refrigerating fish will not destroy the poison. There is also no effective way to test fish for ciguatoxin, yet. If you want to play it safe avoid large predatory fish like tuna, grouper and others alltogether (they are mostly overfished already, especially blue-fin tuna, so you would be doing the planet a big favor).

So eating shellfish or fish which has been exposed to HABs is the main danger to humans. There are instances of skin irritations and breathing difficulties after direct human exposure to HABs but these are rarer and not as well understood. So to be absolutely safe, I would advise you to avoid contact with red tides – no swimming in, diving under or touching them!