Toy­ing with na­ture

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

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ECOWATCH - By Dr Ge­of­frey Mul­Doon and ernest ChiaM

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.

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 boom­bust 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 Ecosys­temBased Man­age­ment.

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 (be­low) de­vel­oped by re­searchers at Univer­sity Malaysia Sabah in 1996, the Sabah grouper is a hy­brid of the giant grouper and tiger grouper. — Ir­wIn wong

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