The hybridization of groupers: A natural blessing or Frankenstein’s monster?
Innovation has been the constant companion of food production systems the world over. More often than not, innovation is pursued with the goal of producing protein more efficiently and with improved yields to meet the food needs of growing populations; but there may be other goals such as increasing resilience to disease, enhancing food security, generating livelihoods, or even reducing production costs.
Fish farming is no exception. From breakthroughs that lead to domestication of previously wild-caught species to cumulative research that seeks to enhance growth rates and survivability of fish through selective breeding and improved feeding regimes, the techniques of farming fish are a constant moving feast. Recent innovations in grouper farming, notably the hybridization of certain grouper species, has given rise to concerns over the direction and purpose of this research.
Toying with natureWhile culturing of grouper dates back to the mid-70s, reports on the successful hybridization of grouper species are scarce with the only recorded hybridization being achieved in the early 80s, between a white spotted grouper (Epinephelus amblycephalus) and a Hong Kong or “red” grouper (E. akaara). Cross-breeding between grouper species is considered desirable, less with a view to developing higher resilience as boosting growth rates under hatchery conditions. This particular research was aimed at producing a faster-growing red grouper (normally a slow-growing but high-priced species) hybrid. Fast forward almost two decades and the science of grouper hybridization has exploded.
In 1996, the University Malaysia Sabah (UMS) achieved a breakthrough and successfully produced a giant grouper (E lanceolatus)/ tiger grouper (E fuscoguttatus) hybrid, dubbed the “Sabah grouper”, specifically for live reef food fish (LRFF) markets in Hong Kong. By the early 2000s, the Sabah grouper was being produced in hatcheries in commercia l quantities and was proving popular among fish growers due to its fast growth rates and low mortality, with “preferred” sized specimens of 800 grams – 1 kilogram able to be produced in 8 or 9 months. Moreover, the “unique” Sabah grouper was taking the market by storm, commanding very high prices and rating highly in terms of taste and texture (the most important qualities of LRFF).
Following its success with the Sabah grouper, UMS scaled back its hybrid program. However, research into hybrids continued in private hatcheries, mainly in Taiwan, and here is where the story goes awry. Perhaps giddy with success, researchers began experimenting with new and different grouper variants and not only between Type I species (the original grouper species) but between hybridized and Type I species or between different hybridized species.
Creating a super fishReminiscent of Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s experiments, but in a modern world that deals with DNA and not body parts, scientists are leaving no stone unturned in their quest for a “super” fish. And while Chinese consumers are known for their penchant for the rare and unusual, hybrid research seems focused on creating new variant species that satisfies both the discerning tastes of consumer and producers and trader expectations for price and supply. 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 the hope of finding that perfect combination of resilience, faster growth, and better taste.
Too much of a good thing?Initially, the Sabah grouper commanded very high prices, with wholesale prices reaching up to USD 40 per kilogram, however these prices have dropped dramatically and are down to USD10-12 per kilogram , where for grouper farmers in Peninsula Malaysia, revenues are barely covering the costs of the production. How did this happen?
According to Dr. Geoffrey Muldoon of the WWF Coral Triangle program, the reasons are obvious – oversupply and commonness.
Once the market had shown its appetite for Sabah grouper, every fish farmer wanted to be involved. Production across the region soared, especially in Hainan Island, China which now ranks as the largest producer and is able to get the species to market at lower costs than Malaysian farmers, from where the species first emerged. Compounding this was that as the species flooded the market, its novelty value wore off. This “boom-bust” element of LRFF supply is not new. In previous years, when the industry first began farming tiger grouper and humpback grouper (Cromileptes Altivelis) at scale, there were regular boom-bust cycles as market alternated between producing these two species. The evidence is again there to see. While prices of Sabah grouper have been going down, prices of the previously disregarded tiger grouper have been going up.
Affecting the environment and the gene poolThe elephant in the room is the potential impacts these hybrids could have on the environment and other wild populations of grouper species. As they are farmed mostly in sea cages, the incidence of escapes is not uncommon, yet to date, little is yet known on the risks to local grouper populations from hybrid escapes. The current thinking is that hybrids are infertile, but there are examples of the devastation hatchery-bred species can inflict on wild stocks; including carp hybrids in Thailand and Salmon in North America. More research is needed and risk mitigation measures must be put in place.
Good, bad, or misunderstood?At a recent Intergovernmental Forum of the six Coral Triangle countries, there was general agreement that “the hybridization of grouper has reached an alarming level, that escapes posed an as yet unknown risk to local wild populations and that in general, this issue needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency.” Dr. Chumnarn Pongsri, Secretary General of the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC), has subsequently called for countries to acknowledge these risks, initiate precautionary measures, and undertake “risk assessment” as a priority.
There are lessons to be learned here. Firstly, the fascination with hybridization of grouper may be misplaced. The pursuit of a faster growing hybrid species is understandable and defensible but there is little evidence to suggest patterns of consumer demand truly merits more efforts on hybridization. Secondly, until the trade can begin to self-regulate in line with markets the viability of a “hybrid,” the aquaculture industry will remain uncertain. And lastly, immediate steps need to be taken to better understand environmental risks and impose appropriate safeguards. To this end, initiatives such as the Grouper and Snapper Aquaculture Dialogue that aim to develop fish farming Standards will play a crucial role in securing the industry’s future.
The fear among some is that a monster species is being created that will have significant negative impacts on the environment and the LRFF industry that generates income and jobs for thousands of fishers regionally. But in the way Frankenstein’s monster was misunderstood, can we condemn something we don’t fully comprehend?
What is needed is more science and market insight to help us understand whether the hybrid phenomenon is good, bad, or simply misunderstood.
For more information, please contact:
Dr. Geoffrey Muldoon, WWF Coral Triangle Strategy Leader
Ernest Chiam, WWF-Malaysia Senior Officer for Bycatch and EBM