The Maori Wrasse ~ Cheilinus Undulatus

Maori wrasse are the largest of the wrasse family, the largest specimen being 2.29m long and weighing 190kg. As juveniles they are brown and rather timid, however males grow much larger, have beautiful colouring with intricate patterns around their face and are incredibly charismatic fish. At one of Wavelength’s sites there is a large, friendly Maori wrasse called ‘Marvin’. Marvin will follow snorkellers, come up to the boat and pose for our photographs.

Maori wrasse reach sexual maturity at about 5-7 years of age, males can live to about 25 years, with females living at least 32 years. Juvenile fish spend their time in seagrass rich habitats but once they reach adulthood move to the reef. Certain adults, Marvin included, appear to stay in one location for extended periods of time. They feed on a variety of molluscs, fish, urchins, crustaceans and other invertebrates. They’ve even been documented to feed on crown of thorns starfish!

They have thick fleshy lips and a large hump that forms on the head above the eyes. Another common name for them is the hump headed Maori wrasse. The hump of the Maori wrasse gets larger with age. The cheeks display a fine pattern of cream, wavy lines, bordered above by a distinctive black or brown line that is horizontal behind the eye and slants down to the upper jaw. The markings around the face are reminiscent of New Zealand Traditional Maori facial tattoos, hence the name.

Maori wrasse are very susceptible to overfishing due to late sexual maturity and slow generation times. They have a wide distribution but are nowhere common. Wherever fished, even if only moderately, density quickly declines to 25% or less compared to protected areas. They are highly coveted in the live fish trade and small, juvenile fish are the preferred catch. This is very damaging to populations as those fished are not given a change to reproduce before being taken from the oceans. Maori wrasse are one of the two most highly valued fish, economically, in the luxury live reef fish trade. Maori wrasse were classed as ‘vulnerable’ and protected in 1996 under the CITES Red List of Threatened Species, they have since been placed in the ‘endangered’ category in 2000 due to increased fishing pressure. They have been protected on The GBR since 2003 under the Coral Reef Fin Fish Management Plan in Queensland waters.

Maori wrasse typically live in solitary pairs but can form harems with one male to 2-7 females. If there is no dominant male in the area the largest female will transform into a male, this is known as protogynous hermaphroditism. This process can take several months as she slowly becomes larger, alters her behaviour, changes colour to a brilliant blue and develops the ‘hump’ on her head, along with male genitals! Keep an eye out for our friendly Maori at some Wavelength snorkel sites.

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