Napoleon Wrasse (Cheilinus undulates) is one of those fish that once encountered you can never forget. This is mainly on account of the sheer size of this gentle giant which can reach 230 cm and can weigh as much as 190 kilograms. It is also a beautiful fish, with scales of a myriad of colours from green, mixed up with blue, and a tinge of yellow and purple close to its eyes resembling eyelashes. “Madanm Tonbe” or “Aya Zerar” in Creole is also called different names in different countries such as Maori Wrasse or the Humphead Wrasse. The latter is on account of the hump above its head which protrudes more as the fish matures and is said to look like the hat worn by the French revolutionary army led by Napoleon Bonaparte.
“The Napoleon Wrasse is a slow-growing fish which makes it naturally rare. However, it plays an important role in the ecosystem as they feed on predatory species such as thorns-of-crowns, and therefore allowing a healthier ecosystem to thrive,” states Gregory Berke, the Director of Conservation and Science at the Island Conservation Society (ICS).
These attributes of size, shape and colour have made this species from the Wrasse family, also called Labridae, a fishermen’s prized catch in the Indo-Pacific region. The frenzy to catch the biggest wrasse in the world led to the conservation status of this species being upgraded in 2004 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) from vulnerable to endangered. Additionally, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) also called for more strenuous regulations against trading of Napoleon Wrasse as displays in aquariums.
Since then, several of the 50 countries from the East Coast of Africa to the Pacific where the Napoleon Wrasse could be found have introduced new regulations to protect this endangered species.
Such global concern in the “King of the Reef” has yet to reach Seychelles were the species is not protected or subject to fishery regulations. This is in spite that the “Madanm Tonbe” or “Aya Zerar” is rarely seen or caught around the Inner Islands.
“We would caution fishermen if they ever catch a Napoleon Wrasse to release it. It's a majestic fish that is worth the next photo on social media, but being an endangered species, this could also be the last photo of the fish,” states Berke.