It has become clear, based on the results of studies, surveys, and many different anecdotal accounts, that the Humphead wrasse cannot withstand anything other than light levels of fishing pressure. It is susceptible to over-exploitation due to its life history, that involves late sexual maturation (sometimes up to 5 years and 35-50 cm total length), long life (over 30 years) and sex reversal from female to male. It appears to be highly vulnerable to overfishing, especially where an export trade has developed, or where night-fishing occurs using SCUBA gear (dive tanks). Despite its widespread distribution, the species is nowhere particularly common. Indeed, as far as we can tell, it is becoming increasingly uncommon. Illegal capture of undersize, juvenile fish often occurs.

Historically the Humphead wrasse was prized for its flavour and texture. Considered in some areas to be a ‘stately’ or ‘royal’ fish, it is, or once was, highly valued in many cultures and used only for special occasions or exclusively available to highly ranked members of Society. More recently it has come to form an important part of the live reef food fish trade (LRFFT) centred in Southeast Asia, at times commanding over US$100 per kg at retail. It is among the most highly priced of all fish species in this international trade.

Traditionally, the wrasse was fished by hook and line, hand spear (more recently by speargun using SCUBA, or diving tanks) or by trap, depending on fish size. Larger fish may sometimes be taken at night from their resting places where they are easy targets for SCUBA divers. To keep them alive for the LRFFT, cyanide is frequently used in some areas for it is not an easy fish to catch. Indeed, most smaller, juvenile, fish are almost exclusively taken with cyanide. The use of this poison as a fishing method is widely despised for it is known to kill living coral, itself an important habitat for this, as well as other, reef fish and invertebrate species. Traders of live fish sometimes supply fishers with cyanide.

Most Humphead wrasse now in the Hong Kong retail sector (the largest known retail sector for this species) are less than 60 cm total length, and most are juveniles. Thus, trade in this species is almost exclusively one of small large juveniles, a pattern that will doubtless exacerbate the threatened status of this species. The problem with juvenile fisheries is that insufficient adults will remain in the future to replenish exploited populations (imagine removing all the children from our cities, where will the next generation come from?). The Humphead wrasse cannot yet be hatchery-reared at commercial levels, so all fish in trade are wild-caught.

Due to documented declines, the Humphead wrasse was listed as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 1996 and later upgraded to endangered. It is variously banned from export from several countries. It was included as a threatened species in the Threatened Fishes series of the Environmental Biology of Fishes in 2001 Vol. 62, page 428. However, until 2004 there was no regional management plan for this species and overfishing and illegal trade continue. The status of this species as a luxury food means that its market value is likely to increase as it becomes less readily available from the wild due to overfishing, thereby encouraging continued exploitation even as populations decline.

Because of growing concerns for this species and the current lack of effective protection of its populations, a proposal to include it on Appendix II of CITES was submitted in November 2002. This was unsuccessful but it was successfully listed at COP13 in 2004. This listing will trigger better monitoring of capture and trade and a permitting system must be established for exports (see FAO ad hoc committee on CoP13 proposal HHW).

The current awareness campaign (pamphlets available by request from: hhwinfo@hkucc.hku.hk) is being conducted because of concerns for the status of this species. The campaign was partially funded by the Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield Zoo, and carried out by the IUCN Specialist Group on Groupers and Wrasses.