Kung Hei Fat Choi! We all love the Chinese New Year, as the city is draped in red and gold, the auspicious colours of the Chinese culture. Friends and families gather to share hearty meals and, of course, everyone’s favourite red packets (lai see) are passed from the old to the young. The seemingly innocent feature of the colour red during this festival has, however, brought on a not-so-auspicious destiny for some fishes.
Prior to the 1990s, celebration banquets including for festivals and, particularly weddings, almost always featured a dish named “清蒸雙紅斑” – “steamed double red groupers”. Deemed appropriate for festivals due to the bright red colour of the fish even when cooked, the “red” grouper, more commonly known as the Hong Kong grouper (Epinephelus akaara), is almost always served by the double for each banquet table (“two” being an auspicious number). As suggested by its name, the Hong Kong grouper has a limited distribution, found only in the East and South China Sea. This exclusivity also means that their numbers in the wild are relatively limited, hence the species is particularly vulnerable to heavy fishing pressures and high consumer demands. Unfortunately, their vulnerability became a confirmed reality in 2003, when scientists found an estimated decline of about 63% in their global populations over just three generations(1). The species became listed as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Handwritten menu from the 1960s, showing the iconic dish “steamed double red groupers” (fifth dish from the right)
Evidently, although the luxury of hosting banquets with “steamed double red groupers” is mostly enjoyed by the relatively well-off, consumption rates were still able to drive the species to near-extinction. Perhaps due to supplies becoming harder and harder to find as there are fewer and fewer of this fish in the sea, the Hong Kong grouper is no longer iconic in banquets and the double-grouper dish is almost never found in banquet menus anymore. But was the lesson learned?
Today, Hong Kong groupers have been replaced in banquets by another red-coloured grouper – the Leopard coral grouper (Plectropomus leopardus) (customers who don’t mind the absence of the colour red may go for a relatively cheaper fish, the hybrid Sabah grouper. This fish, however, comes with its own myriad of conservation concerns. If you want to read more about it, read this blog(3)). The tragedy of the Hong Kong grouper is all but forgotten, as we eat our way through another species without ever questioning the sustainability of the species, nor the necessity for such intensive consumption. The Leopard coral grouper has a relatively broader distribution range compared to the Hong Kong grouper, found throughout the western Pacific. All the same, in 2004 the species became listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Near Threatened (NT) – just one category below being considered as under threat of extinction. The 2017 edition of WWF-Hong Kong’s sustainable seafood guide (4) advises consumers to avoid Leopard coral groupers sourced from Southeast Asia, where there is evidence of population declines and lack of fisheries management for the species.
The switch from one red species to another was almost seamless – and if we did not even notice that anything changed, how can we be alerted to make any change?
Red fish, orange fish, silver fish… what exactly are we eating? It pays off to get to know our fishes beyond simply by their colours. Having this knowledge enables you as a consumer to make the choice of protecting threatened and endangered fish species and choose only fish from sustainable sources. Leopard coral grouper from Australia, for instance, would be a sustainable and red-coloured alternative. It also protects the consumers from being duped into paying more for cheaper fish. News stories featuring supermarkets (5) and a restaurant (6) selling cheaper species to customers as species up to double or triple the price (articles in Chinese only) illustrate the importance for consumers to be knowledgeable and informed.
While consumers can self-educate to protect both themselves and fish species, the Hong Kong government may also fulfil their responsibilities by improving local regulations on labeling fish species at retail outlets and the overall traceability of seafood products.
Finally, we wish everyone a happy Chinese New Year, with many fish to spare! 祝年年有「魚」!
- Cornish, A. 2003. Epinephelus akaara. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2003: e.T43974A10846282. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2003.RLTS.T43974A10846282.en. Downloaded on 15 January 2018.
Author: Stan Shea
(Photo credits: on.cc.hk, fmo.org.hk, mingpao.com)