A couple of weeks ago, local award-winning, free diving spear fisherman Felix Sasamoto was able to catch and haul out of the water a 100-plus pound Terminal Phase (TP) Napoleon wrasse and a slightly smaller Intermediate Phase (IP) one a few days later. The Saipan Tribune has reported two stories, one here and one here.
Photo from Saipan Tribune.
If you're not familiar with the Napoleon wrasse, or Humphead wrasse as it is often called, I’ll refer you to a couple of online sites from which much of the information I present here is obtained.
Most of what is on wikpedia seems in line with other sites and texts I've looked at. A good marine reference site I use is Fishbase and I have also found the links to these stories useful.
From PBS the Trade in Live Reef Fish for Food – Part 1 and part 2 as well as this Odyssey transcript log. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (or World Conservation Union) Red list page (aka IUCN Red list) is also very informative.
First of all let's be clear - those are a couple of big ass fish and no matter how you feel on the issue of whether or not they should have been taken, you must admit that doing so was quite a feat. To dive 50-plus feet on a single breath of air, hunt it down, shoot it and bring it to the surface after the struggle is impressive and is not something the average human can do these days. My hat goes off to Felix and his ability to catch fish, especially big fish, in this way.
Also as Mike Trianni, the Fisheries Manager at DFW has said, Felix has not broken any laws. He was not using SCUBA to fish which is illegal in the CNMI and he was not fishing in a marine protected area (MPA). Nor was he using any of the nets currently banned.
So what’s the controversy?
It’s economics, sustainability, a way of life and the “Teddy Bear” effect.
According to the IUCN Red list assessment in 2004, the Napoleon wrasse is an endangered species. It appears in Appendix II of the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). This list includes species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled.
A few other facts….
Photo from PBS Odyssey log
The Napoleon wrasse is a magnificent fish. The largest of the wrasses, it can grow to a length of over seven feet, weigh in excess of four hundred pounds and live for more than 30 years.
In Asia, Napoleon wrasses are sought after for their meat. A Napoleon wrasse the size of a dinner plate can fetch more than US$1,000. The large fleshy lips are considered a delicacy and are highly sought after with an average asking price of over $300.
Terminal phase males breed with a harem or a small group of females. The supermale is territorial which means it remains in the same location over time and protects the area and the females there too. When the supermale dies a female becomes a male and replaces it. This ensures there is always the ability to reproduce and a continuous opportunity for divers to interact with large inquisitive fish only inches away from their mask.
The reproductive cycle is poorly understood. Overall its resilience is considered low with a minimum population doubling time of 4.5 - 14 years.
They cannot yet be bred in captivity. Not a single Napoleon wrasse has ever spawned in captivity and the outlook for aquaculture is not encouraging.
Its primary foods are mollusks, fishes, sea urchins, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. The Napoleon wrasse is one of the few predators of toxic animals such as sea hares, boxfishes and crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS).
Although the Napoleon wrasse is one of the largest reef fish, it is usually easily scared off. In a few places around the world however, individuals, often older specimens, have become quite well known and are visited regularly by divers. Usually after a period of feeding, bonds are formed with individual divers whom the wrasse recognize and seek out. These 'friendly' fish often appear as soon as divers enter the water and choose to spend the entire dive with them, even allowing divers to touch them.
Here's a quote from the Odyssey captain in the Maldives. (This I can absolutely relate to as I have had similar experiences in places like Palau and Yap).
“Then I noticed, amongst the backdrop of wonderfully colored fan corals, the charismatic Napoleon Wrasse, who had an air of grandeur and splendor about him making the dive complete before it even started."
“Looking into his eyes and interacting with this wild and gentle fish was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had. This was an animal very much aware of our presence. When no one was petting him, he would maneuver around the group, giving the closest person a gentle nudge or a brush, perhaps to remind us that he still required our attention”
A clip from youtube… of the Maldives Napoleon.
So what does this all mean to the CNMI?
In the eyes of the law Felix did nothing wrong. With the Saipan economy on the ropes, the argument that catching a fish like this is not only necessary for survival for some but also a right of the people prevails. Unfortunately, this type of attitude is shortsighted and ultimately bad for the economy and the population as a whole for many reasons. In the end, it is potentially devastating to future generations of people in that they may never get a chance to see or eat one of these charismatic, tasty fish.
In defending the catch it is also fairly easy to look to the past when fishing pressures here were far greater than they are today and to take solace in the fact that “it used to be worse”.
About 4 or 5 years ago the CNMI banned spear fishing with the aid of SCUBA gear. As Mr. Trianni has pointed out, we are the only area in this part of the world that has done this and in so doing we have effectively created a depth-dependent marine protected area. Other than a few exceptional individuals like Felix, it is pretty hard to catch these guys in their normal habitat.
In an email to me, Felix recounted how the commercial SCUBA fishing industry here once had 4 companies each harvesting as many as 2-5 Napoleon wrasse a day! This fact and the extended time required for this species to recover goes a long way in explaining why, after 5 years of diving here, I can only recount a handful of sightings of Terminal phase males. None of which were too interested in getting to know me or allowing me to capture more than a fleeting moment on camera.
Felix also suggested that this practice of using SCUBA, although reduced, still continues today. In defense of Felix he is quite correct in saying that the agencies tasked to do so should be more concerned with those individuals harvesting illegally than with him. That comes down to enforcement and as anyone who has lived here knows - that is a whole other story on which I will not digress!
Until such time when the Napoleon wrasse is common in our waters the overall economic benefit to the island is far greater with them alive, swimming on our reefs, than dead in a market. This would be especially true if the territorial Terminal males were protected at popular dive spots. The idea being that with time the resident male would become one of those “friendly” fish for photographers and videographers to capture endlessly over and over again.
In this scenario the economic benefits to everyone are drastic and must be broken down into two categories. First the more obvious benefits of direct revenues from diving activities including tourists renting gear and traveling to dive with Saipan’s gentle giants. The second, perhaps less obvious form of revenue the island would benefit from, revolves around branding and advertising. This can best be summed up with what I’ll call the “Teddy Bear Effect”. You just want to reach out and hug these types of animals. It's what the RARE Pride campaign is about.
Encounters with marine life demonstrating “personality” and “charisma” are memorable and sought after by divers. These encounters turn into memories that linger with you for a lifetime, entering your conscious mind during times of reflection and ultimately they bring you back to that pin in the map.
To a tourism industry they are that 30-second Super Bowl ad that’s worth a million or so dollars a second to air. But, unlike those make believe commercials, these are real experiences that stick with you forever. They barely lose the emotional intensity invoked at the time. In other words they put a destination on the map and they keep it there. Done right, a single image, in this case a Napoleon wrasse with a diver, shouts to the rest of the diving world – Palau, Maldives, Saipan……
I still get goose bumps when I tell people about some of my most memorable dives and I never have trouble recounting where I was at the time. Memories of dives petting a grouper, looking into the eyes of a curious fish twice your size or being surrounded by a pod of dolphins are among those that never fade. And when someone asks you... Where was that? There's no hesitation – Imagine if we could say Saipan and the response was… Hey isn’t that where they have the Eagle Rays, the Grotto and that huge Napoleon named Harry?
Unlike Super Bowl ads, to a tourism industry this type of advertising is provided free of charge by Mother Nature. It is ours to utilize and maintain or ours to destroy. If it is destroyed only memories remain in the minds of the living and in the images produced by those privileged enough to capture them on film.
If we choose preservation then in a situation where the Napoleon wrasse is prevalent and protected (with limited harvesting dependent on sound numbers) even the fisherman benefit. Hopefully in some direct way from the overall improvement of the economy but, also because the species is actually around in numbers that will allow some sort of harvest and profits from the catch without risking sustainability.
At the moment this situation does not exist here and although Mr. Trianni points out that the species is not rare but uncommon here the numbers are still low and I am not aware of any dive sites where Terminal males approach divers fearlessly.
Therefore, I think it would make a lot of sense to do what is necessary now to ensure that this fish has the best chance possible to become common in our waters. Yes, we can point to successes in the past like the banning of scuba spear fishing (by all accounts the numbers are improving) but doing more now could pay even bigger dividends down the road especially if the Napoleon becomes extinct in other areas. This would of course make our destination that much more attractive to the customers of a profitable sustainable dive industry.
So while I don’t believe Felix should be persecuted for his catch, I am also saddened by it and believe that with the bigger picture in mind he should not have taken these fish especially because they inhabited a very popular dive spot. Given time, their territorial nature, long life spans and ability to lose fear of humans could have made them permanent fixtures at Obyan and ultimately in photos distributed around the world with the strongest form of advertising around - word of mouth.
I respect his abilities greatly and would hope that the agencies with the power to do so will take his advice and pursue those fishing illegally and, if deemed necessary, develop legislative action to protect these animals further in some way. This could be as simple as designating certain sites like Obyan, Lau Lau and Ice Cream as no take zones and enforcing the rules. The spill over effect will benefit everyone for generations to come.
On an aside note I also find it interesting that the Napoleon wrasse is a known predator of the crown of thorns starfish. Of course other predators such as the triton trumpet also exist and they have their own controversies here in the CNMI. I’ve heard on occasion from individuals in some of the agencies that many feel the COTS are a problem here. I don’t believe this to be the case but, hypothetically speaking, if it is then wouldn’t it also make sense to further protect the Napoleon allowing mother nature to take care of the COTS?
One last quote from the Odyssey in the Maldives – Man I want to go there!
"Protection of reef fish species will further develop eco-tourism. This is already happening in the Maldives where the country's main income is derived from the tourist dollar. Tourists will pay a lot to dive on protected reefs where they can have memorable interactions with charismatic but increasingly rare, large grouper and wrasse".