Coral reefs can be damaged through global trade in corals and reef animals

03/30/11 Matthew Cimitile
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Coral reefs, like those found in Florida, are a vital economic and ecological resource. But WMNF’s Matthew Cimitle reports, reef ecosystems can be damaged though the international trade in corals and reef organisms.

According to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, coral reefs provide $375 billion a year in goods and services through tourism, shoreline protection, food, and sources of new medicine. They are also believed to be more biologically diverse than rainforests. But Cara Cooper, a coral specialist at the Environmental Defense Fund, told aspiring lawyers that for all their value, coral reefs are rapidly deteriorating

“These hugely important ecosystems are actually living life on the edge. There is warming waters, coral bleaching, disease, ocean acidification, overfishing, eutrophication, destructive fishing, pollution. All of that conspires together to bring about death by a thousand cuts for our coral reefs.”

Cooper spoke at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport on Tuesday. She said the global trade in reef fish and corals for aquariums and jewelry is a substantial cause of coral decline.

“Studies show a link between international trade and species decline. A global survey found that 90 percent of reefs are missing key species that are valued for trade. Every year over 30 million fish, 1.5 million live stony corals, 4 million pounds of dead coral, hundreds of thousands of other invertebrates and over a hundred thousand pounds of red and precious corals are collected for trade globally. That is just in one year.” Cooper said most corals and coral species like fish end up in the United States, even though they are harvested from reefs in developing regions such as Southeast Asia.

“We are the ones that are driving this force of trade. We import over 60 percent of all coral reef wildlife in the U.S. It is a luxury trade we use for jewelry and home decoration and aquariums.”

It was believed that international treaties between nations such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or CITES, would reduce the amount of trade in corals. Yet since listing species like stony corals under CITES in 1980, imports have increased by nearly 1500 percent around the world. But last year CITES member countries could not pass a trade regulation on red and pink corals. Cooper said it is now time for the U.S. to use its considerable market power in the coral trade to influence and promote sustainable trade.

“The U.S. is in a position to use policy to incentive and reward conservation-minded businesses for protecting coral reefs. Traditional command and control fishing management isn’t going to solve this problem. But by looking at business leaders who are doing the right thing, we can learn how to craft policy that will illicit the right response from industry as well as the right structure so we get the market incentives to weed out the worst players and reward high environmental performance. Creating accountability for importers and exporters by requiring all coral reef wildlife traded in the U.S. meets high standards for sustainable and humane collection, holding and transport will create real incentives for improvement in source countries and throughout the supply chain driving global reform of this trade. Current practices will be improved because suppliers will want to ensure their sources are compliant so they can sell the world’s largest market, which is us the U.S.”

Cooper hopes that more lawmakers will look for ways to use policy to reward good behavior that will lead to long-term sustainability.

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