Humphead wrasse

The humphead wrasse is one of the largest coral reef fishes and occurs patchily throughout much of the Indo-Pacific region. Its late maturity, longevity, predictable spawning sites, and natural rarity make it highly vulnerable to over-exploitation.
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Cheilinus undulatus (humphead wrasse)
© Alfonso González http://www.flickr.com/photos/alfonsator/110544300/

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Key Facts

  • Common Name

    Humphead wrasse, Napoleon wrasse, Napoleon fish, giant wrasse, Maori wrasse, truck wrasse, undulate wrasse

  • Status

    IUCN Endangered (EN) A2bd+3bd; CITES Appendix II

    IUCN

  • Scientific Name

    Cheilinus undulatus

  • Location

    Indo-Pacific

Naturally rare, and in high demand

The humphead wrasse is one of the most spectacular sights in the ocean, but if it is not protected across its range, the species may be forced into extinction.

Humphead wrasse has been subjected to largely unmanaged fisheries that have resulted in consistent marked population declines in fished areas where the species is both protected and unprotected, and with localised extirpations at the edges of its range.

Physical Description

Adult humphead wrasse are identified by thick lips and a prominent hump on their forehead, while juveniles are a light green colour, with two black lines extending from behind the eye. The species changes in body form, colour and can even change sex during its lifetime.

Adults are found on the reef during the day. At night they rest in reef caves and under coral ledges.

Size
This species reaches a maximum length of more than 2m and up to 190kg in weight.

Life Cycle
Sexual maturation of this species takes up to 5-7 years. Humphead wrasse are protogynous hermaphrodites, so some females become males around the age of 9. The reasons for this are not fully understood. The species is reported to live for over 30 years.

Breeding
They demonstrate a reproductive strategy of spawning aggregation, whereby sexually mature adults from adjacent reefs gather at specific sites to mate.

Diet
Humphead wrasse feed primarily on molluscs, fish, sea urchins, crustaceans, echinoderms, and other invertebrates, using their strong teeth. The species may be one of the few predators of the toxic crown of thorns starfish, boxfish and sea hares.

Population
The humphead is found in the Indo-Pacific, from the Red Sea to South Africa and to the Tuamoto Islands (Polynesia), north to the Ryukyu Islands (south-west Japan), and south to New Caledonia. The species is naturally rare, with recorded maximum adult density of not more than 20 fish per 10,000 m². The population has reduced by 50% over the course of 30 years.
Range States
American Samoa, Australia, British Indian Ocean Territory (Chagos Archipelago), Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Cook Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Fiji, French Polynesia (Tuamotu Is.), Guam, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Kiribati, Malaysia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Mozambique, Myanmar, New Caledonia, Niue, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Samoa, Seychelles, Somalia, Taiwan (Province of China), United States Minor Outlying Islands (Wake Is.)

What are the main threats?

Owing to its vulnerability to fishing pressure, high demand and hence high pressure on the species in many areas, populations of humphead wrasse have declined rapidly where commercial fisheries are involved (specifically American Samoa, Sabah - Malaysia, Fiji, Indonesia).

Even in areas where humphead wrasse is protected, catches have been reduced. For instance, annual catch rates dropped by 50% from 1991 to 1998 in Australia, and sightings of humphead wrasse by dive operators in Queensland were less frequent.

Humphead wrasse is found in the coastal waters of 48 countries and territories, few of which have effective management measures in place to regulate the trade. Lack of capacity in enforcement and shortcomings of national regulations compromise conservation efforts of many range countries.

Trade
Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing and trading of this species occurs. For example, in the Philippines, Indonesia and probably eastern Malaysia, illegal harvesting of humphead wrasse with cyanide still occurs; in the Kei Islands of Indonesia, one out of the two ships involved in the export of humphead wrasse did not have the appropriate permits; and in the Maldives, illegal export of humphead wrasse occurs in spite of the export ban.

Humphead wrasse is one of the most valuable fish in the live reef fish trade, and the rarity of this species leads to higher demand and prices of up to US$250-300/kg in China. Although centred in Hong Kong, this trade has spread to southern China and other consumer regions, including Singapore. Of particular concern is that rapid economic growth in mainland China in the near future may further intensify the demand for humphead wrasse throughout the country.

Both mature and juvenile humphead wrasse are harvested for the live reef food fish trade as well as for local consumption; small juveniles (less than 10cm) are collected for the aquarium fish trade which further exacerbates the depletion of the wild population of humphead wrasse.

Priority species

Humphead wrasse is a WWF priority species. WWF treats priority species as one of the most ecologically, economically and/or culturally important species on our planet. And so we are working to ensure such species can live and thrive in their natural habitats.
 / ©: WWF-Indonesia
Indonesian police confiscating humphead wrasse from a fishing boat near the Bunaken National Marine Park.
© WWF-Indonesia

What is WWF doing?

  • WWF promotes consumer awareness around the world and publishes seafood guides to help consumers ensure they only eat sustainable seafood.
  • WWF works to address the threats caused by illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing: sustainable fishing
  • WWF's work on illegal trade involves cooperation with governments and other NGOs to improve monitoring and regulation of illegal trade: Unsustainable and illegal wildlife trade.
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How you can help

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Did you know?

    • The humphead wrasse is one of the two most highly valued fish in the luxury live reef fish trade on a per kg basis.
    • The species cannot be artificially cultured in hatcheries so there is no option to relieve fishing pressure.
    • Concerns for the future of the humphead wrasse are so high that it is the only reef fish protected by species name across a range of countries.

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