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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U.S. Efforts to Protect Domestic and International Coral Reefs: Trade in the Larger Context
Trade in an Ecosystem
Well over a year ago I attended one of those Georgetown dinners in which policy makers and those that would influence them meet to come to political terms. The order of the evening was to convince environmental organization leaders to support Clinton Administration policies regarding free trade agreements and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
A focus of the discussion was the trade in coral reefs. I say coral reefs, not coral reef organisms, because as recent trade studies have documented, the trade is in dead and live coral, other coral reef invertebrates and associated algae, and fishes. This is literally trade in an ecosystem; the majority of the trade is in its underlying structure. (There is a conversation evolving referring to "biotic" reefs recognizing that a majority of reef components are not living corals, but including algae and other "reef" building invertebrates.) In any case, the largest importer by far is the U.S., primarily for the aquarium trade. The U.S. is a major importer, too, of sea horses and Queen conchs.
Is this trade consequential in light of global change, reefs being mined for building material, or otherwise destroyed by pollution? The answer is probably mixed. Global change is the major threat to reefs worldwide, and mining and pollution probably are the next biggest threats accounting for the largest losses. Nevertheless, fishing and harvest for the aquarium trade are probably not sustainable in almost all circumstances, and in many areas may be the most significant threat to coral reefs. In cases where the trade is targeted at rare species, the trade may be a threat to their continued survival. Moreover, it is culturally and politically important to address all threats to natural resources to ensure equitable treatment. However one gives weight to the relative threats, the destruction of coral reefs by human action is clearly ongoing.
All of this continues despite the fact that:
The World Trade Organization and Environmental Controls
During that evening in Georgetown, I noted that the Clinton Administration would do nothing to curtail its role in this destruction. I reasoned that the Administration simply would not take on the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its policies supporting free trade over any other concern. State Department officials assured me that I was wrong. But, sadly, I was right, the U.S. would effectively do nothing to stem imports of coral reefs into our county and the international trade continues to grow virtually unabated. We have instead essentially limited our efforts to assisting exporting nations to care for their coral reefs, to education, and to appealing for voluntary restraint by consumers.
Why can't the world's only remaining superpower curtail its domestic commercial imports of coral reef products when it is clear that the trade is unsustainable, destroying reefs, and undermining the present and future economies of developing countries?
Because the World Trade Organization won't let us. If Congress passed a law controlling trade in imports of coral reef products, one or more of the exporting countries would complain to the WTO that we are inappropriately interfering with free trade. The burden would be on the U.S. to prove to the WTO's satisfaction that our actions were justified. This may seem fair enough, except that the WTO has upheld every challenge to environmental controls, and the burden of proof is always on those seeking to help conserve and protect the environment and our natural resources.
If a country does not agree to curtail its "unfair" efforts to protect the environment, then the court provides for the offending country to suffer financial penalties. If the U.S. won't stand up to offended nations, consider what a small developing country would do in the face of threatening complaints from another nation bent on profiting from the elimination of offending pollution controls or wildlife protections?
WTO's unbridled advocacy of trade no matter what its social and environmental costs is unacceptable if we are going to foster the kind of natural resource stewardship that ironically will make sustainable economies possible. That is why worldwide opposition to the WTO is rising and won't go away.
Of course it is not necessary to open all environmental controls to attack to prevent some countries from trying to promote inappropriate protectionism. A solution to this problem must be forged if we are to continue the benefits of expanding world free trade, and protect our planet's environment and its wildlife.
The highest priority for the new U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick, is to secure "fast-track authority" from the Congress for the President to negotiate new trade agreements. He has criticized the arguably modest efforts by the Clinton Administration to ensure trade agreements do not undermine environmental protection. During his confirmation hearing, it was clear that Congress will be facing a contentious battle on how fast-track legislation will ensure needed environmental protection. One way to resolve conflict is to find equitable solutions.
Can Trade in Coral Reefs be Sustainable? The Limitations of CITES
Through Executive Order no. 13089 for the Protection of Coral Reefs, President Clinton directed the Secretary of State and the Administrator of the Agency for International Development, in cooperation with other members of the Coral Reef Task Force to assess the role of the U.S. in international trade in coral reef species, and to implement strategies and promote conservation worldwide to protect coral reefs. The report from the Trade Subgroup of the International Working Group to the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force helps to respond to this directive.
The conclusions presented above about the threats of trade to coral reef ecosystems echo those of the Working Group. The report noted an accumulating suite of references to coral reefs providing economic and environmental services worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The report suggests that almost all reefs have been affected by over-harvesting, and that there may be no pristine reefs left in the world. In addition the Working Group made numerous recommendations on how to address the problem, including establishing new authorities to reduce the adverse impacts of the trade.
There is a fundamental assumption in these recommendations that it is possible to have sustainable, commercial exploitation of coral reef ecosystems. Many coral reef species are slow growing and slow to mature. Reefs are generally characterized as ecosystems with large numbers of species with relatively few numbers of individuals. Whether one measures sustainability by sustained biomass production, biomass remaining from exploitation, or stability in biodiversity measures, many observers of coral reef ecology are skeptical that such exploitation can be conducted in a relatively benign manner. More likely it is through a series of no-take reserves in marine protected areas, and rotating exploitation in sacrifice zones, that the impacts of the exploitation can be managed. Such management regimes in Australia have been held out as successful examples of this approach. Whether such a regime could be held to be really sustainable would presumably be dependent on whether some steady state over some meaningful time frame could be documented.
Nevertheless, while more research is needed to ascertain the impacts of all threats to coral reef ecosystems, and to demonstrate sustainability of their use, the burden of proof now generally lies with those who would constrain exploitation. Current public process assumes that those who profit from these resources are conducting their activities in a sustainable manner notwithstanding our knowledge of coral reef biology and data on harvest methods, quantities, and impacts that belie such an assumption.
That is not to suggest demonstrating confidence in sustainability would be straightforward. Thousands of species are involved in the trade, and the general tenor of the Working Group report is to seek sustainability on a species by species basis. No doubt, particularly with respect to live rock, many of the species in trade have not been described, the taxonomy of others is under debate or difficult to ascertain, and for most their biology is so imperfectly understood that our ability to suggest any level of exploitation as sustainable is speculative at best. Coupled with the fact that most organisms in this trade are identified in public documents at best to genera or even higher taxa, the conversation that meaningful decisions about the sustainability of harvest or trade is happening or could be so is highly questionable.
Imagine for a moment you are an official in Fiji in charge of issuing export permits under CITES. For stony corals under Appendix II you are charged with ensuring that the species to be exported were taken legally and in a manner that was "not detrimental to the survival of the species." There are 2000 corals listed under CITES, and you are presented with an export application for "live rock," including some species controlled by CITES, others controlled by other domestic law, and some for which there is no domestic or international law for their management. What do you do? What is your decision? How did you come to it? How do you decide this shipment and the ones before it and after it can be considered sustainable uses of the resource?
Keep in mind that the major substantive CITES standard for exports of Appendix II species is that the export is "not detrimental to the survival of the species". There are many people involved in this debate that view this standard as equivalent to a requirement for sustainability, but a clear reading suggests the CITES standard relates to probable extinction rather than a capacity to maintain commercial exploitation ’Äì arguably two very distinct standards. As the Fijian official you are lucky with regard to this standard. All you really have to suggest to allow the shipment is that it is not likely to be detrimental to the survival of any species it contains.
However, the treaty also suggests that exports should be limited to maintain the species throughout its range at a level consistent with its role in the ecosystem. Whether this is a legal standard for issuance of the permit that is enforceable is unclear. Whether "consistent with its role in the ecosystem" is a standard equivalent to "sustainable" is also uncertain. Sustainability, defined or not, is not a standard of international trade law, and for those purposes you are free, as that Fijian official, for all intents and purposes to ignore the question.
Imagine now that you are a border official in the U.S., and you receive a shipment of stony corals from Indonesia with an official permit attesting that the material was legally obtained and taken in a manner not detrimental to the survival of the species. You have several problems. You may not have a clue what species are really in the container, and if you did, how many are controlled by CITES or the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Under current U.S. policy, the pressure is to accept the shipment unless you challenge the authenticity of the export permit. You could also question the underlying assertions concerning whether the specimens were legally obtained or in the judgment of the Indonesian officials whether the shipment was detrimental to the survival of the species included. You are likely not in a strong position to do this. In the experience of CITES implementation, you are also on very thin ice with respect to the "role in the ecosystem" standard. Hence, you approve the import and waive the shipment through.
These two examples suggest that CITES simply was not designed to be implemented as a comprehensive wildlife management tool at this scope of trade.
The International Working Group of the Coral Reef Task force identifies a series of actions being taken by U.S. agencies and makes recommendations that inherently make sense and are or would no doubt be beneficial, including research, education, better enforcement of existing domestic and international controls, and enactment of needed, restrictive legislation. The legislation did not happen, in part because some in the conservation community did not want interference with their "sustainable" coral reef projects. Nevertheless, enforcement of existing law is not likely to alleviate significantly the harmful impacts of the trade, except in some highly managed habitats
I would emphasize and add to those recommendations the following with the view to strengthen their potential impact:
The 21st century will be the most important in the existence of coral reefs over the past 5,000 to 10,000 years. In this century, we will make important decisions either intentionally or by indecision on whether we want to conserve a majority of coral reef biological diversity and how many coral reefs we want to see survive into the next century.
With regard to the coral reef trade, what does it say about us as a species, when we continence destructive trade in one of our planet's richest and sensitive ecosystems?
A trade that is argued excusable because it damages coral reefs less than other threats.
A trade that directly and predictably threatens the health and safety of our fellow humans.
A trade that captures and holds other organisms for our aesthetic enjoyment when we know their lives are essentially treated as consumables being acquired largely by poisoning their bodies and maintained without expectation of their survival.
How can we experience beauty and pleasure in such a process?
What do we consider potentially sustainable about this exploitation?
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