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Strong demand from China and weak regulation and enforcement in source countries are overwhelming conservation efforts at of rare reef fish like coral groupers, according to research by Australian academics investigating production and consumption trends in Southeast Asia and China. 

Speaking during fieldwork in Beijing, Dr. Michael Fabinyi, of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Australia, believes that it’s vital to understand social contexts of consumption such as the rising popularity of Southern Chinese cuisine along with notions of social status and conspicuous consumption as China’s nouveau riche display their wealth. 

Capture of sea cucumber, shark fin and reef food fish like napoleon wrasse and grouper in poorer Southeast Asian states like the Philippines is being driven by demand in China, said Fabinyi. He noted that Malaysia napoleon wrasse populations are down 98 percent in catch and relative abundance, respectively, in the past eight years.

The financial rewards for Southeast Asian fishing communities are obvious: napoleon wrasse and leopard coral grouper sell for USD 200 and USD 100 per kilogram in Chinese restaurants visited by Fabinyi. Indonesia ranks No. 1 in shark fin shipments (13 percent of all shipments from 2000 to 2008) with 10th-ranked Malaysia also shipping to China/Hong Kong, the world’s No. 1 market, which accounted for 40 percent of the global shark demand.

Demand for luxury seafood in China has driven intensification and population growth in coastal areas. The coastal Philippines region of Balabac, for instance, aided by increased links with Malaysia, has shipped sea cucumber to China for centuries. But the difference today, noted Fabinyi, is “that it takes hours rather than months and involves volumes of hundreds rather than dozens of tons.” 

Not surprisingly, supplies are being exhausted. Research published earlier this year by the Victoria University of Wellington based on interviews with 431 families in Balabac revealed a shift from low-volume and high value to high volume, low value trade in the collection of sea cucumber and other seafood products that are shipped to China. 

Chinese demand for large reef fish like humpback and leopard coral grouper as well as napoleon wrasse being are bring sought out by small-scale fishing outfits. They often use sodium cyanide and invest in electronic gadgets to locate increasingly scarce fish in response to rising Chinese prices. 

Ultimately, environmental and social effects of overfishing in producer countries may be the spur to action. However, the long-term trend of rising mainland Chinese wealth and consumption appear inevitable. Per-capita seafood consumption in China, low by comparison to neighboring Japan, will rise four-fold to 36 kilograms by 2020. The predominance of southern cuisine (also propagated by overseas Chinese communities that tend to originate from the south) and the popularity of TCM suggest demand for ever-scarce luxury seafood items will increase. 

The potential for full-cycle aquaculture appears to be growing, however. The damage done to wild supplies is worrying, particularly given fish caught for the live reef fish trade tend to be long-living, slow-growing and low in numbers.

Crucial is Hong Kong, which handles up to 50 percent of shark fin shipments, as a transshipment hub for mainland China. Increased Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) checks by Hong Kong customs has helped, noted Fabinyi.

Even with action on broader issues like poverty and governance in source nations like the Philippines, it’s unlikely there’ll be change without action from the consumption end in China. While efforts to reduce sharks fin consumption have shown some positive results, said Fabinyi, more important will be attitudes among China’s elites supporting consumption of threatened species. 

“In addition to specific policy actions relating to luxury seafood consumption, broader efforts to reduce inequality and corruption, which do not focus on the resource itself, may prove just as relevant over the long term,” said Fabinyi.

There’s evidence the trade in luxury seafood is not confined to Chinese restaurants. Based in the capital of Guangzhou Province, which borders Hong Kong, Guangzhou Aquatic Products sells 500-gram frozen-packed whole “coral grouper” (it’s not clear exactly what the species is) at RMB 168 as well as 400-gram packs of sea cucumber at RMB 280. The firm markets the products on Chinese online retail stores and gdcct.com.

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