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Book Review:

The Global Trade in Coral

WCMC Biodiversity Series No. 9

1999, WCMC-World Conservation Press

Edmund Green and Frances Shirley

70 pages, ISBN 1-899628-13-4

Email: info @wcmc.org.uk

Bob Fenner  

Though most aquarists (some 90%) are freshwater, and of the other ten percent that are marine, "only" one tenth are keepers of reef systems, these one percenters are avid in their interest, to put it mildly. Take a look in hobby magazines, mail order and Internet drygoods and livestock supplier's listings. This group is highly targeted for what they are big dollar consumers.

In the same vein, reefers as a group are hungriest for new information, and should be (Per gallon, many are amazed to the point of non-disclosure at how much they've spent/are spending on their set-ups). This interest extends to issues of availability and restriction of wild stocks, including, of course, true or stony corals, Order Scleractinia.

It is no surprise to find that there are national and international agencies interested in detailing, monitoring and controlling the world's natural resources. What is surprising to me, is the common to the point of almost universal misunderstandings of the various sources of "use" and destruction of living reefs. How much relative and absolute consequence is the removal (selective collection) of live corals for the pet-fish trade, compared with the curio (souvenir), cement manufacture, "incidental" destruction by errant anchoring, siltation, human and industrial waste...?

This paper is a very sound beginning at throwing light on this and other related questions. Though I don't agree with some it's tentative conclusions and can't abide with much of it's mathematical extrapolation, this is a serious attempt to make sense of thirteen years of data collected on the international trade in hard coral.

The originator of this work, The World Conservation Monitoring Centre is a venture between the IUCN- The World Conservation Union, UNEP- United Nations Environment Programme, and WWF- World Wildlife Fund for Nature. To their collective credit the Centre professes to provide information services "on the conservation and sustainable use of species and ecosystems" and "supports others in the development of their own information systems". Worthy goals, and right in line with what should be the philosophy and practice of aquarists, the production and dissemination of knowledge and technology.

Overall Coverage: from the Executive Summary

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), is the inter-governmental agency (amongst its 143 national signatories) charged with monitoring the legal trade in corals. This paper presents analysis of the years 1982-1997 for Black Corals, and 1985-1997 for stony corals, accounting for some 19,262 tons (34,600,000 pieces). The USA is the biggest importer (56% by weight). Indonesia is the largest exporting country, superceding the Philippines in the late eighties. Fiji and the Solomon's are increasingly important sources of live corals. International trade overall (dead and live) in stony corals peaked in the early nineties, but has flattened to about 1,000 tons per year.

There are 119 genera (and about 2,000 species) of stony corals. Most shippers ship specimens listed only to higher taxonomic standing due to difficulties in species determination.

Dead corals used to account for more than 90% (not stated by weight or piece count). According to this paper, since the nineties live coral accounts for the bulk of trade, with some 600-700t per year (more than a million pounds!)

The paper states that "quesstimates" were made of typical size (10 X 6 X 6cm.) and weight (200g) and further correlation to age (three years or so) of wild-collected stocks. Though I took issue with these suppositions, Daniel Stokes (of TMC, UK) assured me these numbers were derived from samples at their facility and Quality Marine (LA, USA)... more about this below.

Their economic analyses find that the cost at point of export is about US $5 million, and at retail some ten times higher, with coral collectors earning between $105,000 and $792,000 (in 1999 US dollars!) per year (they wish).

This paper's overall view is that compared with destructive practices (e.g. dynamite fishing and coral reef mining) "the effects of collecting live coral for the aquarium trade are very small".

Selections of Note to Aquarists & their Industry:

p. 21: The vast majority of corals in the trade are supplied by wild stocks (96%), only 0.03% coming from aquaculture...

P.22: during the reporting period (1985-97) most coral (86% by weight) was traded dead (2% as carvings), the rest (14%) live, mainly for the pet-fish trade. The live trade accounted for nearly 6 million pieces during this time, from 83 genera.

P.27: due to the trade, air service of specimens has improved (from Indo. and Fiji from 50 to 30 hours in the bag), and a greater selection of higher quality corals at lower costs has resulted.

pp.35-39. Current CITES regulations call unrealistically for identifying exported/imported corals to species. Even given reference works and several minutes per specimen only about half of a given sample of species were identified correctly in an experiment. Lay people were about as successful at these i.d.'s as zoologists!

P.41: to give you an idea of "other" sources of coral reef destruction, coral mined in Jakarta area of Indonesia has been estimated at 10,000-25,000 cubic meters per year. This is some 15,000 to 37,500 tonnes. Another case in Indonesia: One village group of sixty families produce six hundred 25kg bags of lime (from burning coral), an annual total of 900 tonnes, that equals about 1,600 tonnes live material (this is some $60 per tonne sold versus $7,000 per tonne sold live). The ornamental and live trade of corals out of all of Indonesia has never accounted for 2,000t! Similarly, the Maldives (Indian Ocean) extract and process coral reefs for construction materials at some 20,000 cubic meters per year, or 25,000 tonnes... to quote the authors: "In comparison with these factors (other sources of coral reef destruction), and climate change, the adverse but localized effects of the international coral trade are tiny."

Problems with this "Study":

Are numerous and grievous. For one, much of the extrapolation for "average size and weight" was done from sampling of two "A" players in the industry (Quality Marine in the U.S. and Tropical Marine Centre in the U.K.). These establishments are inarguably the best of their kind, and receive much better, larger livestock than the vast majority of marine livestock wholesalers. Any casual investigation of "other" shipments would reveal this bias in the expanded data.

This study has the U.S. keeping 622,000 marine aquariums (figures attributed to the industry lobby PIJAC) with approximately 6 million pieces of coral at an average weight of 200g each... and some 18 million colonies of soft corals, with live rock estimated in a "similar way" at approximately 50,000t (or 110 million pounds!?). These numbers are HIGH. Assuming all 622k marine aquariums are reefs (ridiculous), this puts about 177 pounds of LR in each. I'll stick with my figures of about ten million freshwater aquarists (not the 1.1 million stated) in the United States (do I have to define what is an aquarist? Or aquarium?), an even million saltwater tanks up and going and about 100,000 full blown reef set-ups. These more accurate, figures are batted about at APPMA, PIDA and proprietary company gatherings.

The calculated export value of live stony corals at $5 million U.S. for all collecting countries is fallacious. Within the scope of even just my travels to these countries and their collecting stations I assure you this number is way too low. Likely the exporting companies (and possibly countries) are under-reporting, probably to avoid taxation.

P.51 "these figures" (relative cash flow through diver/collectors, national agencies (businesses), wholesalers, and end-users) "may have to be adjusted if coral collectors are paid more for live corals than dead..." Of course they are. Ask anyone in the trade and/or go visit them. Pp.54, 57, the Tables presented on General Aquarium Suitability and Fragment Viability alone make this a volume for serious reef keepers.

My Overall Opinion:

Though I disagree with some of the suppositions made on the basis of all-too-often questionable data accumulated and expanded on for this paper, there is no better source of information or assessment currently (all shipments of corals require CITES permits from which data can be accrued). All reef-concerned parties should carefully pour over its contents and utilize the statements offered here in their understanding of what impact the trade/hobby in live corals has on the wild, and ways that we can all reduce sources of non-sustainable use.

The authors and their organizations would do well to initiate their own fact-finding and collaborating data from larger, more-representative visits and gathering information that draws on more standard, accurate, significant and meaningful methods. Much, too much of the supposition, conversion factors and extended values presented here have a WIDE limit of confidence.

Careful selective extraction from wide geographic areas, assessment/regulation of impacts, captive propagation should cover the live coral trade. Large live coral skeletal for sewage treatment, cement making, construction rubble... Outright destruction from sewage, run-off, industrial wastes, careless tourism activities... all need to be reduced. In conclusion I agree with the authors that the global live coral trade has little long-term impact, but disagree that it is a low value business. For collecting countries, their peoples and the consumers that derive a sense of place from engaging themselves in the real world, the live coral is high value.

Thanks to:

Daniel Stokes of Tropical Marine Centre, a premiere manufacturer, livestock breeder and importer, and distributor in our interest in the UK, for quickly sending me a copy of this paper for use and review.

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