Building a sustainable live reef food fish trade

Reef fish are a highly valuable natural asset in the Coral Triangle.

Yet the current trade in this resource is destroying marine environments, depleting fish stocks and leaving coastal communities vulnerable.

How can we change this dangerous course?
 / ©: Jürgen Freund / WWF-Canon
Live reef fish trade in Kudat. Split level of caged fish and caretaker. Kudat, Sabah, Malaysia. 30 June 2009
© Jürgen Freund / WWF-Canon

What is the Live Reef Food Fish Trade?

The Live Reef Food Fish Trade involves the capture of reef fish which are kept alive for sale and consumption mainly in Hong Kong and mainland China. Smaller markets exist in Malaysia and Singapore.

Live fish have long been traded around Southeast Asia as a luxury food item, but in recent decades trade in fish captured on coral reefs has expanded rapidly.

Because of their superior taste and texture, groupers have now become some of the most valued fish in this trade. These are typically carnivores, predators at the top of the reef food chain that are:
  • rare relative to the animals at lower levels of the food chain, on which they feed
  • long-lived (up to several decades)
  • often late to mature and reproduce
This makes groupers particularly vulnerable to fishing.

Problems with the Live Reef Food Fish Trade

As much as 50% of reef fish are being taken from the water before they have had an opportunity to reproduce.

These fish are 'grown out' in cages until they reach market size, a practice that will be disastrous in the long term.

Caged fish don't contribute to replenishing wild stocks and high rates of extraction of live fish are already resulting in fishing down the food chain, with unknown long-term ecosystem impacts.

Severely depleted fish stocks threaten local food supplies and undermine local incomes in the long term.

The heart of the problem is that Live Reef Food Fish Trade is a 'boom-and-bust' business.

Although the trade has provided communities with additional income, these benefits are unsustainable and have come at considerable cost.


Watch a short video on the live reef food fish trade...
 / ©: WWF
Key facts & figures regarding seafood in the Coral Triangle
© WWF
© WWF

Documentary on the Live Reef Food Fish Trade

What WWF is doing

Working along the entire supply chain of the Live Reef Food Fish Trade from reefs to dinner plates, WWF is:
  • Collaborating with industry and governments to reduce and eradicate destructive fishing practices
  • Supporting governments and industry to design national and regional solutions to put this trade on a path to sustainability
  • Enabling national and regional trade alliances to promote best management practices through the International Standard for Trade in Live Reef Food Fish
  • Promoting increased production of live reef food fish from sustainable full-cycle mariculture to stop overfishing of wild stocks
  • Offering consumer guidance and promoting sustainably-sourced fish in Asian cities

How you can help

    • If you work in the Live Reef Food Fish Trade, you can support WWF's efforts to establish a Regional Trade Alliance to promote the sustainability of live reef fish. Contact us here.
    • If you consume reef fish, you can ask for (and buy only) sustainably-sourced live reef fish. For information on which species to avoid, check the WWF Seafood guides.

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