KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia - Amid banks of bubbling aquariums, Hong Kong resident Kerry To sat back and admired his plate-size steamed grouper plucked from one of the tanks in this Malaysian restaurant and cooked live. "It is very special," said the 45-year-old To, who flew to the northwest coast of Borneo Island for a holiday featuring a chance to sample the rare delicacy. "These fish are so big and taste so good. I'll be telling my friends." What he and other diners don't realize is that their appetite for live reef fish — a status symbol for many newly rich Chinese — has caused the populations of these predators to plummet around Asia as fishermen increasingly resort to cyanide and dynamite to bring in the valuable catch. Entire reef ecosystems, already endangered by pollution and global warming, are at risk.A study released Wednesday about the trade in Malaysia found that catches of some grouper species and the endangered Napoleon wrasse fell by as much as 99 percent between 1995 to 2003, a period coinciding with soaring economic growth in countries where the exotic fish are a delicacy."The removal of these large, predatory fish might upset the delicate balance of the coral reef ecosystem," said Helen Scales, who co-authored the study for the Swiss-based World Conservation Union. The study appeared in the online edition of Proceedings of The Royal Societies, a respected scientific journal."With all the threats the reefs already face, these fishing practices take us one step closer to losing these reefs," she said.The study of daily fish catches and sales quantifies what conservationists have said for a decade — that hunger for live reef fish in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China is causing populations of wrasse, grouper and coral trout on coastal reefs to plummet in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea.There is also a growing live reef fish trade off the coast of California, where everything from rockfish to eels are caught and sold, mostly in Asian restaurants along the coast, according to Scot Lucas of the California Department of Fish and Game. But unlike Asia, the trade is heavily regulated and fishermen are not known to use the same destructive methods.The U.N. and the World Conservation Union released a report last year warning that human exploitation of the high seas was putting many of its resources on the verge of extinction.It noted that 52 percent of global fish stocks are over-harvested and that populations of the largest fish such as tuna, cod and swordfish declined as much as 90 percent in the past century. The report also said destructive fishing practices — including bottom trawling, illegal longline fishing and an increase in large industrial vessels — have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of seabirds, turtles and other marine life."Well over 60 percent of the marine world and its rich diversity found beyond the limits of national jurisdiction is vulnerable and at increasing risk," Ibrahim Thaiw of the World Conservation Union said last year.Reef fish — which are caught mostly by small fishermen who sometimes use cyanide poison to stun their catch — are prized mostly because they are cooked live. Traders are careful to ensure they arrive that way, packaging them in bags of water and placing them in coolers for trips that often stretch for thousands of miles.In restaurants, diners can pay as much as $50 a pound for the fish. Business dinners and weddings in Hong Kong and other Asian cities routinely serve live reef fish alongside such delicacies as shark-fin soup."Most Hong Kong people now choose to eat grouper because of the firm flesh. It's tastier," said Ng Wai Lun, a restaurant owner in Hong Kong. "Farmed fish is less tasty and fresh."The World Wide Fund for Nature's Annadel Cabanban, who studies the trade in Malaysia, agreed with the study's finding that the numbers of reef fish were on the decline due to increasing demand. She said destructive fishing practices were as much to blame for the decline as overfishing because they destroy crucial reef habitats."There are no predators to check the fish that eat the plants and the shellfish," Cabanban said. "There is a cascading effect on the reef. With so many herbivores, the plant population declines and fish run out of food and they die."Scales, the study's co-author, said it was impossible to quantify how many fish were taken by explosives or cyanide because fishermen refuse to say. But she said the cause of the decline was definitely the live reef fish trade, since reefs in the areas had been damaged by other environmental factors such as bleaching."These severe declines were rapid, species specific," Scales wrote.Conservationists fear the growing demand for live fish — an industry worth more than $1 billion a year — is increasing pressure on coral reefs already threatened by warming oceans, development and pollution. Eighty-eight percent of Southeast Asia's coral reefs face destruction from overfishing and pollution, the U.S.-based World Resources Institute estimates. Most threatened are reefs in the Philippines and Indonesia, home to 77 percent of the region's nearly 40,000 square miles of reefs. Fishermen in Kudat — a South China Sea port in Malaysia that depends almost entirely on fishing — acknowledged that catches have declined. Their boats now travel to the Philippines for reef fish. The fishermen argue there are plenty of fish and that they have few options. "This is our livelihood," said Ismail Noor, 45, adding that he sometimes spends three days at sea in search of fish. "If we stop, we would have no income." Noor and other fishermen insist they use only hooks and lines or nets. But the local fisheries department said the use of explosives is widespread, despite campaigns warning of the danger of losing arms, legs and hands. "Most villagers are stubborn and have always done bombing since they were children," said fisheries official A. Hamid Maulana. "It is difficult to change attitudes." Conservationists say the answer is to establish international standards for managing the import and export of reef fish. They also say consumers must be educated about the need to avoid certain endangered fish and promote captive breeding. No international body has been willing to endorse standards commissioned by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, a group of Pacific Rim governments, that would ban explosives and cyanide in fishing, boost monitoring and enforcement, and label fish caught by conventional means. "Traders are interested in ensuring they have a constant supply of product," said Geoffrey Muldoon, an Australian expert. "Their idea of a constant supply is not to say we have to protect this area, but that we need to find a new area because we have fished this one out."