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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Releasing wrong fish on Buddha’s birthday could do more harm than good: Green Power

Buddhists who release fish into the sea in a show of compassion to mark Buddha’s birthday may be doing more harm than good if they pick the wrong fish, a green group warns.

People who practise Chinese Buddhism traditionally mark the celebration, which takes place tomorrow, by buying and releasing animals otherwise facing slaughter. The practice demonstrates Buddha’s teachings of kindness and compassion.

“But by picking the wrong creature, the believers could do more harm than good to the habitat,” Green Power’s chief executive officer Dr Man Chi-sum said.

Such is the case with the Sabah giant grouper, a cross-breed bred in Malaysian fish farms specifically for consumption.

The fish has become a popular choice for release as it is large and relatively cheap at HK$60 to HK$90 a catty (600 grams). It looks like a local giant grouper, but costs less.

Releasing it into Hong Kong waters could adversely affect local ecosystems as it has a huge appetite. The fish has to consume 4kg of smaller fishes to grow by just 1kg.

“It could even bite humans when hungry,” Man said.

Last month, a man was bitten by a grouper off the shores of Pok Fu Lam. The bite marks left by the fish were 15cm long.

It is unknown what the impact on the habitat would be if the species mated with local groupers, said Ken Ching See-ho , director of Green Power’s Eco-education and Resources Centre.

Ching said he found eight Sabah giant groupers during a recent dive at Sharp Island in Sai Kung. He warned that the groupers could threaten the red bandfish that lay eggs near the island every May.

Anyone who needed to release fish for religious purposes could switch to duskytail groupers, red snappers or sweetlips, Ching said. But seafish should not be released in western waters as the water is a combination of fresh and seawater.

Ching said many animals died after being released in the wrong places. He related stories of people who released hairy crabs, tortoises, frogs and even insects. Once, 10,000 grasshoppers were released into the Shing Mun Reservoir, he said.

As for fish released at public piers, Ching said many ended up being caught within the hour by anglers on the same pier.

Source: SCMP 5/5/2014

Giant groupers set free by locals invade Sai Kung

Divers found eight giant groupers in the Sai Kung waters after a 90 minute search. The fish, the same as the hungry giant grouper that attacked a 70-year-old man in the water across from Pok Fu Lam’s Wah Kwai Estate last month, should not have been there, according to authorities.

Environmental groups are urging Hong Kongers not to release marine life to celebrate Buddha’s Birthday tomorrow, reports Apple Daily. Buddhists mark the celebration by releasing animals into the wild they have saved from slaughter, but releasing the giant grouper into Hong Kong waters could have a terrible affect on the ecosystem.

Giant groupers are known for their immense appetite and consume large amounts of smaller fish. They will only attack humans if they don’t have enough food to eat.

Source: Coconuts Hong Kong 5/5/2014

Giant grouper bites morning swimmer at Pok Fu Lam

Coconuts Hong Kong provides this translation of an Apple Daily item with amusing video (in Cantonese) today:

“A regular morning swimmer at the beach across from Pok Fu Lam’s Wah Kwai Estate was chased after and bitten by a giant grouper.

The morning swimmer, a 70-year-old retired chef surnamed Cheng, said he felt a sharp pain on his thigh, when he noticed a grouper about two-feet long swimming around him.

When he got out of the water he found a six-inch-wide wound cut on his leg, worried about a bacterial infection he went to the hospital for treatment.

An expert told the Apple Daily that the groupers might have escaped from a fishery or may have been set free by environmental activists. The expert says that when groupers get hungry they would really bite humans and these groupers can get as big as nine-feet-long.”

Source: Coconuts Hong Kong, 30/4/2014