Red and pink coral, prized for jewelry and home décor, are among the least known species being discussed at the 15th Conference of Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), taking place this week in Doha, Qatar. However, behind the scenes there is considerable lobbying by those who want to see this unique and valuable marine resource protected from unregulated trade, and coral industry representatives who fear any trade controls may force them out of business.
The Doha conference meeting has focused primarily on bluefin tuna and sharks, which are being proposed for Appendix I and Appendix II trade protection. While the bluefin tuna proposal was overwhelmingly defeated on Thursday, sharks and corals still have a chance at trade protection. Meanwhile intensive lobbying, side events, and distribution of materials by the coral industry with inaccurate information have occurred; all this activity is over 32 little-known, but extremely valuable deep-sea red and pink coral species, known as the Family Coralliidae.
Red and pink corals are long-lived, slow growing deep-sea coral species that are drastically different from their tropical water coral reef cousins. Over 30-50 metric tons of Coralliidae are harvested annually from the Mediterranean and the Pacific to meet consumer demand, yet there are no international trade protections to ensure these species can sustain such intense trade. All stony tropical reef corals have been protected under the Convention since the 1980s. Increased fishing pressure on Coralliidae species has resulted in serial depletion of populations around the world, prompting some coral scientists to say that: "given the nature of [red and pink coral] exploitation, the terms ‘harvesting’ and ‘fishery’ inaccurately imply a renewal of the resource, which in reality rarely occurs.” The United States and European Union have submitted a proposal at the 15th Conference of Parties to CITES to protect red and pink coral. Trade would still be allowed, but would have to be proven sustainable.
Kristian Teleki, vice president of science initiatives with SeaWeb said Coralliidae populations are under pressure from unregulated trade: “Red and pink corals are the most valuable and widely traded of all deep-sea corals. They’ve been intensively fished for centuries and populations are struggling as a result. An Appendix II CITES listing will ensure greater monitoring and protection of these species, to ensure their populations remain strong and continue to play an essential role in the marine ecosystem.”
In a recent piece by broadcast news network Al Jazeera, the Italian artisans and businesses who support a USD$230 million-a-year industry expressed concern that a CITES Appendix II listing for red and pink coral will force them to give up a livelihood that has deep historical and cultural roots. But Italian conservationists note that continued overharvesting of red and pink coral could be the real industry killer. Italy, once the world’s capital of the luxury red coral trade, is now sourcing 70% of its coral from the Pacific, where destructive fishing practices such as dredging are regularly used.
“During this meeting we have heard a great deal about bluefin tuna, sharks and the lobbying involving these species,” added Teleki. “What we haven’t heard is that similar industry interests are also attempting to thwart any protection for red and pink coral. In reality, this monitoring of the trade can help protect these species, as well as the people and livelihoods that depend on them. SeaWeb urges countries to ignore the propaganda and listen to the science and vote in support of the Coralliidae proposal. This may be these species’ last chance to receive any sort of meaningful protection.”
CITES parties will vote on the United States and European Union’s proposal on Sunday, March 21 in Doha, Qatar.