One strange fish and three cheers for biodiversity

Conservation, development and profitability in Indonesia

Stocks of the endangered Napoleon fish could be restored thanks to innovative fish management techniques in northeastern Indonesia. ©️Subphoto/


Corpulent, thick-lipped, with eyes set off as if by smudged mascara. Head like a delicately patterned anvil. Body a shimmering blue.

The sumptuous and the comical fight it out in this creature’s looks. Known prosaically as the humphead wrasse, and more majestically as the Napoleon, the fish may appear either stunning or endearingly misshapen. Still: neither its intriguing appearance, nor its role in sustaining marine ecosystems (it preys on toxic sea animals and maintains the health of the coral reef) has kept the Napoleon safe.

The fish peaks late and breeds sparsely. It takes years to reach market size. And when it does, the market is unforgiving. A rampant appetite for what is seen as a culinary delicacy in East Asia has badly dented stocks.

By 2004, CITES had recognized the fish as requiring trade controls. Indonesia, one of its main habitats, has legislated to deter smuggling. But with law enforcement patchy and a single kilo of Napoleon fetching up to USD 850, this turquoise-hued wonder could soon become the rarest of sights.

Enter capture-based aquaculture, or CBA. Traditional CBA is simple enough: youngish fish born in the wild are caught, then transferred to farms for growing in controlled conditions. Once they reach market size, the fish are sold for human consumption.

The technique is commonly associated with bluefin tuna, commercially caught and fattened to serve the restaurant sector. Alternatively, it is applied to low-value species, where the fish stays local to improve the diet of impoverished communities.

In parts of Indonesia, a novel version of CBA has organically emerged. It involves island communities collecting the Napoleon not just young, but almost at larval stage, when mortality rates are naturally high. Left to its own devices, the Napoleon has a poor record of staying alive: even in unfished areas, adult population density can be as low as two per 10 000 square metres of reef.

“They say you shouldn’t fish a fish until it’s spawned at least once. The novel type of fishing in Indonesia turns the logic on its head: it removes individuals at the point when they’d be very, very likely to die in the wild – and grows them out instead,” says Kim Friedman, an FAO marine scientist who specializes in rebuilding depleted stocks.

Left: Capturing the Napoleon early improves its chances of survival. Among the fish’s remarkable features is the ability to change sex around the age of ten. ©FAO; Right: Anambas, one of two Indonesian island groups where a new approach to capture-based aquaculture is taking shape. ©Heru Suryoko/

In boosting overall survival rates, this approach corrects for a form of spontaneous culling. It also embeds the logic of conservation into CBA’s dual commercial and development rationale. The Napoleon may be protected, sold for profit and used to bolster livelihoods – all in one neat package.

A function of economic necessity, the fishing technique seen in Indonesia took shape on two island groups in the country’s northwestern Natuna Sea. Years of observation have given local fisherfolk a nuanced understanding of the Napoleon’s life cycle and habits, Friedman says.

“Experts couldn’t rival this intimate knowledge. But what we at FAO can do is come up with a sustainability measure for the collections. We can look at the value chain and ensure that the take is at a sensible level, that waste is minimized, and that early feeding and grow-out promote healthy behaviour and healthy individuals.”

The project is still in its early stages. But Friedman emphatically sees it as a scalable blueprint rather than an experimental one-off. “There’s nothing to say that this particular version of capture-based aquaculture can’t be normalized – not just across Indonesia, but across the whole of the world’s tropical coral reef areas.” 

So much for improving the lot of the fish, of those who produce it and of the environment. What about the final consumer? In the prevailing wild versus farmed dichotomy, how does the buyer react to the marketing of fish that is neither of these things, and yet a bit of both?

“Broadly speaking, consumers in industrialized countries don’t much mind if the fish is wild or farmed,” says FAO fish trade and markets specialist John Ryder. And while wealthy Asian consumers still pay a premium for wild fish, Friedman argues that larger grow-out cages, coupled with a healthier growth regime, could make aquaculture-bred Napoleon comparable with adults taken from the wild.

More fundamentally, research by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) shows increasing public expectations that fish should come from sustainable sources. This emerging consensus mirrors early signs of political convergence between the competing agendas of conservation and consumption.

The Napoleon fish is seen as critical to the health of Southeast Asia’s Coral Triangle. ©Richard Whitcombe/

“As we work up to the UN Ocean Conference ,” Ryder says, “you can see global discourse beginning to shift away from fortress-style conservation towards conservation and sustainable use of fish stocks. I think that’s the right way to go. I’d put what’s taking shape in Indonesia inside the overall envelope of people’s sustainable relationship with nature, in which we find biodiversity plus food security plus social inclusion.”

He pauses, then smiles with the air of landing on something that’s all at once self-evident and a bit of a revelation. “That’s what the SDGs are about, isn’t it?”

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) might not be technically about the Napoleon fish. But as it brushes past the coral reef, sustaining life below water and on the shores above, the Napoleon – little though it knows it – is very much about the SDGs.

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1. No poverty, 14. Life below water, 15. Life on land