With its thick lips, bulging forehead, and electrifying rainbow of colors, this striking fish (Cheilinus undulatus) is beloved by divers the world over. Reaching over 6 feet in length and nearly 450 pounds, it’s one of the largest coral reef fishes.
An imposing but usually solitary giant, the fish is often shy, except in areas where it has been protected and fed by divers. It is found in steep lagoons and outer reefs throughout the Indo-Pacific region and is one of the few predators to feed on poisonous species, such as the crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci), which in turn feeds on coral. The wrasse is thus vital to keeping reef systems in balance.
Sadly, the giant humphead is easily over-exploited. Because it is slow to mature and reproduce, it is unable to withstand even low levels of fishing. The fish’s unusual appearance attracts divers, as well as the live reef fish trade, which dooms many fish to live out their remaining days in aquariums. Lack of protection and unregulated trade have made it easy for boats to access remote locations and collect the fish at will. These activities have contributed to a halving of the global population of this unique fish in the last few decades.
Much is known about this massive fish, but scientists have yet to assess many smaller coral reef species and do not know if they are in danger. We are working with a network of partners, including the IUCN-World Conservation Union, to undertake the Global Marine Species Assessment (GMSA), the first comprehensive assessment of more than 20,000 marine species, over the next three years. By identifying the most important species and key marine areas, we can prioritize our work and investments. With partners, we have already begun working in high-priority seascapes.