The International trade in live corals may help preserve wild corals and coral reefs.
In the wake of the recent proposal by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to list 66 species of coral under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Sea Shepherd adding the elimination of the aquarium hobby to its aims, it is heartening to see a study published this week showing that the reef aquarium trade may be having a positive influence on coral reefs.
The study, ‘Long-term trends of coral imports into the United States indicate future opportunities for ecosystem and societal benefits’ by Rhyne, Tlusty, and Kaufman, was published in the December issue of the journal Conservation Letters. The team of researchers from Roger Williams University, Boston University, Conservation International, and the New England Aquarium, suggest that the trade in live corals may help to preserve wild corals and coral reef ecosystems.
Whereas trade in corals was once primarily a trade of dried skeletons as curios, it is now concentrated on supplying live corals for the reef aquarium hobby in a trade that is continually evolving, with the introduction of species new to the hobby.
The authors analysed 21 years of US import data, finding that the coral trade had increased over 8% per year between 1990 until the mid-2000s, and has since reduced by 9% annually. The timing of the peak and decline varies between species, and is a result of the rising popularity of the reef aquarium hobby, global financial issues, and an increase in domestic aquaculture production, with the decrease mostly owing to the current economic climate.
The live coral trade is viewed by some critics as a threat to the high biodiversity ecosystems that make up the coral reefs, however, supplying the aquarium trade with locally cultivated corals offers opportunities for reef conservation, provides sustainable economic benefits to coastal communities, along with an incentive to protect the reefs from which the mother colonies are obtained.
Recent changes in the trade of live corals for the reef aquarium hobby are resulting in new opportunities for conservation. “The trade has moved from a wild harvest to mariculture production, a change sparked by long-term efforts to produce a sustainable income to small island countries such as the Solomon Islands and also by the government of Indonesia,” says Andrew Rhyne, lead-author and Roger Williams University assistant professor of marine biology and research scientist at the New England Aquarium. This shift from a wild fishery to a mariculture product poses new opportunities and challenges for conservationists.
The rapid evolution of the trade with new species waxing and waning in value makes effective management difficult. “New species in the live coral trade initially command high prices, but as they become common the price drops with feedback effects to the trade,” said Les Kaufman, Boston University professor of biology and research fellow at Conservation International.
“The live coral trade offers opportunities for coral reef ecosystem conservation and sustainable economic benefits to coastal communities,” says Rhyne. Michael Tlusty of the New England Aquarium, adding that “the realization of these externalities will require effective data tracking.”
Coral reefs are subject to numerous anthropogenic threats including the global threat of warming oceans that are becoming more acidic, and local threats such as improper land use resulting in increased nutrient loading, and over-fishing, which can trigger an ecological cascade resulting in blooms of seaweed that inhibit coral growth.
Trade can be a strong incentive for conservation, but this emerging local conservation tool may be at risk from well-intended restrictions to trade such as ESA listing, and similar prohibitions, intended to protect corals and coral reefs. Restrictions such as these may eliminate the benefits of the trade revealed by the study. These benefits include putting a value on intact coral reefs, and providing a greatly needed income for many in the island nations where hundreds of millions of people rely on the reef for subsistence. A more selective regulatory approach that allows local efforts to sensibly manage reef resources may be preferable.
It is refreshing to see a study that emphasises the value of the reef aquarium hobby to those living in supply countries who rely on the reefs for their meagre livelihood. Putting greater value on the reefs locally would, hopefully, bring about a reduction in destructive fishing methods such as dynamite fishing and the use of cyanide
In recognising the value of the trade in corals as a positive tool for reef conservation it would seem appropriate if some way could be found for these mostly poor, subsistence fisherman to gain greater benefits from the aquarium trade, acknowledging their role in managing the reef environment.
As an aside, it’s interesting to see that the decline in trade varies species to species and the comments regarding new species, suggesting that species popularity may be subject to fashion and whim rather than an desire to recreate a realistic portrayal of the wild reef in the home aquarium.