Table of Contents
Coral Reef Crisis: Causes and Consequences
Can Ecosystem Management of Coral Reefs be Achieved?
Global Solutions to Global Trade Impacts?
Download PDF version of this report (507 kb)
Coral reefs around the world are in crisis. Over 25% have already died or are severely damaged, and another 30% are seriously threatened and may die -- from global warming, overfishing, destructive fishing practices, and unsound coastal development. Contributing to the problem, many coral reef animals and products are collected globally for commercial purposes, including food fish, the marine aquarium trade, live food fish markets, curios and knick-knacks, jewelry, and traditional medicines. Global trade is leading to overexploitation of reef animals and the use of fishing practices that destroy the 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. Results suggest that almost all coral reefs have been affected by overfishing, and that there may be no pristine reefs left in the world.
The symposium, Global Trade and Consumer Choices: Coral Reefs in Crisis, held at the 2001 American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting and Science Innovation Exposition in San Francisco, California, featured five experts who spoke on the global trade in coral reef species and coral reef conservation. They analyzed the causes and consequences of global trade in coral reef animals, the role of the U.S. as a major importer, and presented solutions to reduce the negative impacts of trade on these unique ecosystems while promoting long-term benefits to local communities through sustainable resource use. This report presents their papers, as well as the following overview of their main points.
Franklin Moore and Barbara Best of the U.S. Agency for International Development note that "coral reefs are invaluable resources to local communities around the world, serving as sources of food, jobs and livelihoods, and as coastal protection." By one estimate, coral reefs provide economic goods and ecosystem services worth about $375 billion each year to millions of people. "However," observe Moore and Best, "international trade is driving overfishing and destructive fishing practices, such as the use of cyanide to collect live reef fish. The unsustainable and destructive use of these precious resources jeopardizes the potential of coral reefs to sustain local communities and future generations."
Roger McManus, former President of the Center for Marine Conservation and Senior Advisor for Oceans in the U.S. Department of the Interior, notes that the trade in coral reef species is in actuality trade in an entire ecosystem. McManus asks if this trade, though, is consequential in light of other threats posed by global change and pollution. Fishing and collecting of other coral reef species are probably not sustainable in most cases, are the most significant threat to many targeted species, and in many areas are a significant threat to the overall health of reef ecosystems. McManus adds "it is culturally and politically important to address all threats to natural resources to ensure equitable treatment."
McManus also argues that the U.S. should not allow the World Trade Organization to influence its actions in the global trade arena. "The U.S. should exercise its authority as an international leader in both trade and environmental conservation, and address its own trade policies on coral reef animals." He suggests that the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) "was not designed to be implemented as a comprehensive wildlife management tool at this scope of [the coral reef] trade." McManus recommends the creation of more marine protected areas with no-take zones, as well as a phase-out of U.S. imports of wild coral reef species except where the trade can fulfill criteria for sustainability more stringent than those now in use under CITES.
Charles Birkeland, from the University of Hawaii's Hawaii Cooperative Fishery Research Unit, noting the diversity of coral reef ecosystems, the life history adaptations of reef species, and the close knit intricacies of species interactions, cautions that coral reefs are inherently more vulnerable to overuse than are other marine ecosystems. If the coral reef trade is to be sustainable, reefs must be managed using an ecosystem-based approach. However, the fisheries management laws of the U.S. constrain the use of best management practices, such as an ecosystem-based approach, and are particularly ill suited to promote sustainable management of coral reefs.
The Coral Reef Ecosystem Fishery Management Plan for the western Pacific, though, is charting new territory as the first ecosystem-based fishery management plan for U.S. waters. It adopts a precautionary approach that shifts the burden of proof through a permitting system, applies adaptive management through continuous use of new information, creates marine protected areas with no-take zones, and requires "insurance" against unforeseen ecosystem impacts.
There is already strong international concern that some coral reef species are threatened or may become threatened through trade. Those species are listed under CITES, and include 2000 species of hard (stony) corals, black coral, giant clams, Queen conch, and sea turtles. However, most of the coral reef animals in trade are not covered under CITES.
Susan Lieberman, former Chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Division of Scientific Authority and currently Director of the Species Programme of WWF International,and John Field, also with USFWS, discuss the potential for international trade agreements, such as CITES, to address environmental concerns. They note that "under CITES, exporting countries are required to conduct scientific determinations that this trade is sustainable, and will not jeopardize species or their ecosystems." However, this ideal is often not fulfilled in reality. While the primary responsibility for ensuring the sustainability of harvests and exports under CITES rests with exporting countries, Lieberman and Field suggest that "as an importing country, [the U.S.] also must share some of the responsibility, whether through cooperative bilateral and multilateral efforts or regulatory actions." They add that it is "vital to couple those strategies with increasing public awareness ... An informed consumer is powerful ’Äì and can guide industry best management practices, government policies, and of course Congressional interest and action."
Vikki Spruill and Lisa Dropkin, of SeaWeb, though, observe that "Americans have little knowledge of the real threats to coral reefs and the life they support." Surveys show that Americans believe pollution is the greatest ocean threat, and that most consider coral reef conservation a second tier concern. But, there is support for coral reef protection and there is growing momentum to use consumer choice to drive ocean conservation. Spruill and Dropkin note that "Americans often express their conservation values by what they purchase. We need to make Americans aware of how consumers can contribute to reef conservation by buying sustainably caught reef animals." They add that informal data suggests aquarium hobbyists want an industry based on sustainability and are willing to modify their purchasing behaviors to support reef conservation.
Clearly, there is an urgent need to address the trade threat to coral reefs. Dire as the picture may seem, the papers presented here point to a way forwards. Potential remedies are known. Some are already being tested ’Äì like coral reef reserves with no-take zones, and consumer awareness campaigns with likely application to reef species. To achieve an equitable and sustainable solution will require that all must be pursued, engaging communities, exporters and importers, governments, non-governmental organizations, consumers, scientists, and international institutions.
For additional information about coral reef monitoring and conservation efforts, visit the websites of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (http://www.coral.noaa.gov/gcrmn), the International Coral Reef Initiative (http://www.icriforum.org), and the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force (http://www.coralreef.gov). To learn more about U.S. efforts to address the trade threats to coral reefs, contact Dr. Barbara Best, Coastal Resource and Policy Adviser for the Environment, U.S. Agency for International Development at firstname.lastname@example.org, telephone 1-202-712-0553.
 See Wilkinson, C. (editor). 2000. Status of the coral reefs of the world: 2000. Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and Australian Institute of Marine Science, Cape Ferguson and Dampier, Australia. (http://www.aims.gov.au/scr2000).
 Hodgson, G. 1999. A global assessment of human effects on coral reefs. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 38(5): 345-55.
|AAAS > AAAS International > AAAS Africa Program|