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Published: Monday December 16, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday December 16, 2013 MYT 9:00:17 AM

Toying with nature

Sought after: Successful farming of groupers has made a once rare fish readily available in restaurants. Scientists, however, fear the impact of these hybrids on wild specimens. — Filepic

Sought after: Successful farming of groupers has made a once rare fish readily available in restaurants. Scientists, however, fear the impact of these hybrids on wild specimens. — Filepic

Hybridisation of groupers: a blessing or Frankenstein’s monster?

Innovation has been the constant companion of food production systems the world over. More often than not, innovation is pursued with the goal of producing protein more efficiently and with improved yields to meet the food needs of growing populations; but there may be other goals such as increasing resilience to disease, enhancing food security, generating livelihoods or even reducing production costs.

Fish farming is no exception. From breakthroughs that lead to domestication of previously wild-caught species to cumulative research that seeks to enhance growth rates and survivability of fish through selective breeding and improved feeding regimes, the techniques of farming fish are a constant moving feast. Recent innovations in grouper farming, notably the hybridisation of certain grouper species, has given rise to concerns over the direction and purpose of this research.

While culturing of grouper dates back to the mid-1970s, reports on the successful hybridisation of grouper species are scarce with the only recorded hybridisation being achieved in the early 80s, between a white spotted grouper (Epinephelus amblycephalus) and a Hong Kong or “red” grouper (E. akaara).

Cross-breeding between grouper species is considered desirable, less with a view to developing higher resilience as boosting growth rates under hatchery conditions. This particular research was aimed at producing a faster-growing red grouper (normally a slow-growing but high-priced species) hybrid. Fast forward almost two decades and the science of grouper hybridisation has exploded.

In 1996, University Malaysia Sabah (UMS) achieved a breakthrough and successfully produced a giant grouper (E. lanceolatus)/tiger grouper (E. fuscoguttatus) hybrid, dubbed the “Sabah grouper”, specifically for live reef food fish markets in Hong Kong. By the early 2000s, the Sabah grouper was being produced in hatcheries in commercial quantities and was proving popular among fish growers due to its fast growth rates and low mortality, with “preferred” sized specimens of 800g to 1kg being produced in eight to nine months. The Sabah grouper took the market by storm, commanding high prices and rating highly in terms of taste and texture.

Following its success with the Sabah grouper, UMS scaled back its hybrid programme. However, research into hybrids continued in private hatcheries, mainly in Taiwan, and here is where the story goes awry. Perhaps giddy with success, researchers began experimenting with new and different grouper variants and not only between Type I species (the original grouper species) but between hybridised and Type I species or between different hybridised species.

Developed by researchers at University Malaysia Sabah in 1996, the Sabah grouper is a hybrid of the giant grouper and tiger grouper.
Developed by researchers at University Malaysia Sabah in 1996, the Sabah grouper is a hybrid of the giant grouper and tiger grouper. — IRWIN WONG

Creating a superfish

Reminiscent of Dr Victor Frankenstein’s experiments, but in a modern world that deals with DNA and not body parts, scientists are leaving no stone unturned in their quest for a “super” fish. And while Chinese consumers are known for their penchant for the rare and unusual, hybrid research seems focused on creating new variant species that satisfy both the discerning tastes of consumer and producers and trader expectations for price and supply. According to Irwin Wong, a live fish trader in Sabah, at last count, there were at least 12 new hybrid grouper variants and research is continuing in the hope of finding that perfect combination of resilience, faster growth and better taste.

Initially, the Sabah grouper commanded very high prices, with wholesale prices reaching up to US$40 (RM120) per kg. However these prices have dropped dramatically and are down to US$10 to US$12 (RM30 to RM38) per kg. For grouper farmers in Peninsular Malaysia, revenues are barely covering the costs of the production.

The reasons for this are oversupply and commonness. Once the market had shown its appetite for Sabah grouper, every fish farmer wanted to be involved. Production across the region soared, especially in Hainan Island, China, which now ranks as the largest producer and is able to get the species to market at lower costs than Malaysian farmers, from where the species first emerged.

Compounding this was that as the species flooded the market, its novelty value wore off. This “boom-bust” element of live reef food fish supply is not new. In previous years, when the industry first began farming tiger grouper and humpback grouper (Cromileptes altivelis) at scale, there were regular boom-bust cycles as market alternated between producing these two species. The evidence is again there to see. While prices of Sabah grouper have been going down, prices of the previously disregarded tiger grouper have been going up.

Side effects

The elephant in the room is the potential impacts these hybrids could have on the environment and other wild populations of grouper species. As they are farmed mostly in sea cages, the incidence of escapes is not uncommon, yet to date, little is yet known on the risks to local grouper populations from hybrid escapes. The current thinking is that hybrids are infertile, but there are examples of the devastation hatchery-bred species can inflict on wild stocks, such as the carp hybrids in Thailand and salmon in North America. More research is needed and risk mitigation measures must be put in place.

At a recent Intergovernmental Forum of the six Coral Triangle countries, there was general agreement that “the hybridisation of grouper has reached an alarming level, that escapes posed an as yet unknown risk to local wild populations and that in general, this issue needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

Dr Chumnarn Pongsri, secretary-general of the South-East Asian Fisheries Development Centre (SEAFDEC), has called for countries to acknowledge these risks, initiate precautionary measures, and undertake “risk assessment” as a priority.

There are lessons to be learned here. Firstly, the fascination with hybridisation of grouper may be misplaced. The pursuit of a faster growing hybrid species is understandable but there is little evidence to suggest patterns of consumer demand truly merits more efforts on hybridisation.

Secondly, until the trade can begin to self-regulate in line with markets, the aquaculture industry will remain uncertain. And lastly, immediate steps need to be taken to better understand environmental risks and impose appropriate safeguards. To this end, initiatives such as the Grouper and Snapper Aquaculture Dialogue that aim to develop fish farming standards will play a crucial role in securing the industry’s future.

The fear among some is that a monster species is being created that will have significant negative impacts on the environment and the live reef fish food industry that generates income and jobs for thousands of fishers regionally. But in the way Frankenstein’s monster was misunderstood, can we condemn something we don’t fully comprehend? What is needed is more science and market insight to help us understand whether the hybrid phenomenon is good, bad, or simply misunderstood.

Dr Geoffrey Muldoon is WWF Coral Triangle Strategy Leader and Ernest Chiam is WWF-Malaysia senior officer for Bycatch and Ecosystem-Based Management.

Tags / Keywords: Environment, Lifestyle, ecowatch, marine, invasive species, exotic species

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