Table of Contents
Coral Reef Crisis: Causes and Consequences
Can Ecosystem Management of Coral Reefs be Achieved?
Global Solutions to Global Trade Impacts?
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Coral Reef Crisis: Causes and Consequences
This paper presents an overview of the value of coral reef ecosystems to developing countries, the impacts of international trade on coral reefs and local communities, and the role of the U.S. as a major consumer nation and driving factor in the international trade of corals and coral reef species.
Coral Reefs are Invaluable Coastal Ecosystems
By any measure, coral reefs are among the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on earth. Coral reefs occur in over 100 countries, most of them developing countries without the capacity or financial resources to adequately manage these vital resources. Reefs support at least a million described species of animals and plants, and another 8 million coral reef species are estimated to be as yet undiscovered.
According to one estimate, coral reefs provide goods and services worth about $375 billion each year - a staggering figure for an ecosystem which covers less than one percent of the earth's surface. Reef systems provide economic and environmental services to millions of people as shoreline protection from waves and storms, as places for recreation and tourism, and as sources of food, pharmaceuticals, livelihoods, and revenues.
In developing countries, coral reefs contribute about one-quarter of the total fish catch, providing food to an estimated one billion people in Asia alone. Globally, half a billion people are estimated to live within 100 kilometers of a coral reef and benefit from its production and protection. In light of expected climate change and associated sea level rises, coral reefs can offer a natural, self-building and self-repairing breakwater against wave and storm damage. These extremely valuable ecosystems constitute the economic base and future hope for sustained development in many countries, particularly small island nations.
Coral Reefs in Crisis
A recent report from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network estimates that 25% of the world's reefs are already gone or severely damaged and that another third are degraded and threatened. This coral reef crisis is happening here at home in the U.S. and in far away places, in some of the most remote areas of the world.
Coral reefs are in serious trouble worldwide from a powerful combination of stresses that are threatening their survival, including:
These direct and indirect human activities pose significant threats to coral reef ecosystems, and the human populations that depend on them, particularly small island developing countries. For example:
Even under ideal conditions, it would take more than a lifetime for some reefs to recover. We can no longer continue to take coral reefs or mangrove forests for granted, or to assume that they can support unlimited resource use or unmanaged global trade.
Trade, Mangrove Forests, and Coral Reefs
While coral bleaching may be one of the largest threats facing coral reefs, international trade is having significant impacts on even the most remote and pristine reefs. Recent surveys of reefs worldwide found that many species of high commercial value were absent, or present in very low numbers, in almost all the reefs surveyed (Hodgson, 1999). Results suggest that almost all coral reefs have been affected by overfishing, and that there may be no pristine reefs left in the world.
International trade is also posing significant threats to mangrove forests, another critical coastal ecosystem that is intimately connected to coral reefs. Mangrove forests serve as important nurseries for many reef species. They help to maintain coastal water quality by reducing the run-off of sediments, pollutants and excess nutrients from the land. Nutrients and energy flow between these habitats as species move between them.
In some areas of the world, the major loss of mangrove forests is due to the construction of shrimp mariculture ponds for the world market. The cheap shrimp we consume here in the U.S. comes with enormous ecological and social costs for the local communities where mariculture ponds are inappropriately sited and intensively farmed.
Trade Drives Destructive Fishing Practices
How does the international trade in wild coral reef animals and products more directly impact reefs? Primarily through overfishing and the use of destructive fishing practices. Live fish for both the food trade and marine ornamental trade are often caught with the use of cyanide or other poison, which temporarily stuns the fish for easy collection. Cyanide use is a serious threat to some of the world's richest coral reefs, as the cyanide kills corals and many other coral reef organisms. The lucrative and unregulated international trade in reef fishes drives the use of cyanide. It is estimated that since the 1960's, more than one million kilograms of cyanide has been squirted onto Philippine reefs alone, and the practice has spread throughout East Asia and the Indo-Pacific (Bryant et al., 1998).
Various explosives, such as dynamite and homemade bombs, are also used to kill fish for easy collection, but at an enormous cost to the reef which is reduced to rubble. In Komodo National Park in Indonesia, about half of the reefs have already been destroyed through the use of explosives, forming beds of coral rubble that can extend several football fields in length. While the use of explosives to collect dead fish is usually for domestic trade, some of the fish that are only stunned will enter the international trade stream.
International trade is also driving the removal of the calcareous skeleton or base of the reef itself; reef skeletons are sold as "live rock" for marine aquaria. This base is the resulting accumulation of coral skeletons over tens to hundreds and thousands of years. Living coral, which constitutes the essential reef habitat for a myriad of species, is also collected and shipped live for marine aquaria, or killed and dried for the curio and shell trade.
Trade Drives Overfishing and Removal of Targeted Groups
In addition to destructive practices, international trade is driving overfishing and the selected removal of key groups from coral reefs. Major groups targeted for trade are:
The marine ornamental trade for the pet industry often targets rare fish and coral species, as these can fetch the highest prices. The trade is also targeting large-polyped corals, which tend to be the slowest growing and the least common. By targeting the large groupers and wrasses, the live food fish trade removes key species from these ecosystems, thus altering their dynamics. The loss of some is comparable to the loss of major predators from terrestrial ecosystems. Other fishes feed on algae, and thus play an important role in ensuring that corals are not overgrown by more rapidly growing algae. The removal of coral for the marine aquarium trade and for use as curios and knickknacks, and the removal of the "live rock" base, reduces the essential reef habitat.
There are strong economic incentives associated with this international trade. The live food fish trade through Hong Kong alone is estimated to have a retail value of about one billion dollars a year. Some species of fish, selected live from a restaurant tank, can sell for almost $300 per plate. The global retail of marine ornamental fishes and aquarium hobby supplies is estimated at $500 million. Last year, for example, a pair of rare fish sold for over $5,000 each. Over 1000 different species of coral reef animals are now traded for marine aquaria.
The impacts from international trade are quite different from other more chronic causes of reef degradation, as these impacts are felt even in the most remote, pristine reefs. The use of destructive fishing practices, such as the use of cyanide, is spreading throughout the Indo-Pacific as fishing boats venture farther to find new unexploited fishing grounds
There is already strong international concern that some coral reef species are threatened or may become threatened through trade. Those species are listed under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and include 2000 species of hard (stony) corals, black coral, giant clams, Queen conch, and sea turtles.
Consequences of Destructive and Unsustainable Fishing Practices on Local Human Communities
International trade is driving destructive fishing practices and unsustainable harvests from coral reef ecosystems, reducing the value of coral reefs to local communities and prospects for long term sustainable use. In some areas, depletion of stocks and the destruction of the reefs are threatening peoplesĺ─˘ food security.
This international trade is a highly mobile trade; as stocks are depleted in one area or country, the trade moves on to other areas, often spreading the use of destructive fishing practices. Thus, the nature of the trade provides few incentives for long-term sustainable use by a community, and few benefits are channeled to the local communities.
The use of poisons and hooka gear can have serious consequences for the collectors themselves. Cyanide fishing poses human health risks to the fishers through exposure to the poison. A hooka rig is a low-tech approach to scuba diving that involves a compressor on the boat that pushes air down long tubes to divers below. Divers can spend many long hours under water collecting with hooka rigs. Unsafe diving practices by untrained divers can lead to the diver's "bends" and result in joint disease and even paralysis and death. Each week, several divers who have contracted the bends are taken by fishing boats in Honduras for treatment in the local diving decompression chamber. These divers have been collecting spiny lobsters to supply the growing U.S. appetite for seafood. Similar reports of injuries to divers come from South East Asian countries where hooka rigs are used for collecting marine ornamental fish and live food fish.
U.S. Role in International Trade
In 1998, in response to the coral reef crisis, the Executive Order for the Protection of Coral Reefs was signed. The Order created the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force as a way of coordinating federal and state efforts, and charges federal agencies with the conservation and sustainable use of reef resources both domestically and worldwide. The Task Force was also asked to analyze and address the U.S. role in the international trade of coral and coral reef species.
The results of the trade analysis reveal that while live reef fish for the food fish market primarily go to Asian markets, the U.S. is the number one consumer of live coral and marine fishes for the aquarium trade and of coral skeletons and precious corals for curios and jewelry. Inadvertently, American consumers are contributing to the worldwide decline and degradation of reefs.
A closer examination of the U.S. trade reveals that the U.S. was consistently the largest importer of live coral during the 1990s, importing over 80% of the live coral and 95% of the live "rock" or reef base. Ironically, the U.S. prohibits the collection of coral and live rock in its own waters as they are considered essential fish habitats.
In addition to coral, the United States imports nearly half (eight million) of the total worldwide trade in aquarium fishes (15-20 million/year). Many of the fish imported for the marine aquarium market in the U.S. are captured with the use of cyanide and other poisons, which kills non-target animals and the coral reef itself. Sustainability concerns will only increase with the growing international trade. The international trade in coral and live rock to supply the aquarium trade has increased at a rate of 12 to 30% per year since 1990.
The U.S. Role in Addressing the Trade Threat
The U.S. is part of the problem. The U.S. needs to be part of the answer. As a major consumer and importer of coral reef organisms, a major player in the world trade arena, and a leader in coral reef conservation efforts, the U.S. has a critical responsibility to not only address the degradation and loss of coral reef ecosystems worldwide, but to also encourage more responsible trade. As consumers, the U.S. should discourage the use of destructive or unsustainable collection practices that may jeopardize the future potential of coral reefs to sustain the local communities who depend on them for food and livelihoods. Rather, we should reward and encourage responsible use of these precious resources, and shift the burden of proof of sustainable use, for commercial and recreational purposes, to the users.
We need to emphasize community-based management of coral reef resources so that people living on and around coral reefs may share in the profits from coral reef activities. Other exploiters, whose primary interest is in making money without sharing benefits with local communities, should not be allowed to profit from these precious resources.
Oftentimes, local communities or national fisheries departments lack the capacity to sustainably manage reef resources, or to resist the short-term, high gain, economic incentives associated with the live food fish and marine ornamental trades. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is the principal agency of the U.S. Government responsible for building capacity in sustainable resource use in developing countries. USAID is presently working with local communities and national governments in about 20 countries to assist them in conserving and managing their coral reef and coastal resources through capacity building for integrated coastal management, better land-use practices, sustainable fisheries management, and marine protected areas.
There are also immediate actions available to the U.S. public in terms of awareness and individual consumer choice. There is an urgent need to develop positive trade regimes so that only products from reefs under sustainable management plans are allowed into or out of the U.S., to ensure that consumer demand by Americans is not contributing to the decline and degradation of coral reefs.
We must change our view of how we treasure and value natural resources. For example, last month, the U.S. adopted new trade measures covering the import of antiquities from Italy into the U.S.; all antiquities from Italy must now be accompanied by documentation and certification has to how they were collected and where they are from, to ensure that they are from legitimate sources.
We must take a similar approach to natural resources. The U.S. government is promoting the idea among other nations within the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that consuming nations must bear some of the responsibility for their imports, and it is considering this approach for reef resources.
The U.S. could play a significant role by helping reward responsible practices, creating market incentives for responsible behaviors, and requiring certification of non-destructive collection practices and demonstration of sustainable collection of coral reef species. In this way, government, consumers, hobbyists and industry members can work together to ensure a responsible trade.
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