(DOHA) — Parties to the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) are ready to consider again a United States proposal to list red and pink corals on Appendix II of the Treaty. Black corals are already listed on Appendix II of CITES and that listing has improved the ability of CITES parties to monitor the trade.
The demand for coral jewelry is driving coral populations to extinction and the U.S. is the biggest consumer. Supplies have declined over 80% since the mid 1980s; Mediterranean precious corals are almost gone; Pacific populations, if not already depleted, are exhausted 4-5 years after discovery. Previously harvested beds are now dominated by small, immature colonies, yet even the smallest pink coral specimens are collected, ground into coral powder, mixed with resin, and made into jewelry.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brought this proposal forward at the 2007 meeting of the Conference of the Parties in The Hague. “It was narrowly defeated in the last minutes of that meeting due to a lot of misinformation and high pressure tactics by the industry,” said Linda Paul, Director of International Programs for Earthtrust, a member of the Species Survival Network. “This time it is even more urgent that the proposal be adopted.
Two technical meetings were held in 2009, one in Hong Kong and the other in Rome, at which new evidence was presented indicating that red and pink corals grow 2-3 times more slowly than previously reported. It may take a hundred years for them to reach their maximum reproductive potential.
As deep sea harvesting technology continues to become more advanced, even very deep coral are likely to become depleted. “Sustainable harvesting of precious corals is not possible,” said Paul. “Coral harvesting is mining, not fishing. The use of trawls, dredges and tangle nets to collect the deeper-dwelling species destroys entire coral beds and their associated ecosystems. Depleted areas may take hundreds of years to recover.”
Although the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council has a coral harvesting plan for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands it has never been implemented. That area is now a protected marine national monument and off-limits to commercial coral collectors. Nevertheless it is feared that poaching by foreign fishing vessels may still be occurring there.
Approximately 70% of the raw product comes from the Pacific, but the exact locations are unreported and unknown. In 1985, 100 tons were poached by foreign fishing vessels around Gardiner Pinnacles and Laysan Island. Recent photographs of the bottom habitat taken by a deep sea submersible in the Emperor Seamounts in the US EEZ indicate that that this area was dredged for corals as well. The habitat is littered with broken and dead coral rubble. “The poachers were never caught in the act because enforcement in the Pacific Ocean is very difficult and very expensive,” said Paul.
Enforcement is only possible when the coral product enters into trade, usually at some port of entry. However, there are no international trade controls or comprehensive monitoring programs for red and pink corals and they are not managed by UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) or any regional fisheries management organization. This is the responsibility of CITES, which has a mandate to regulate trade in threatened species.
Listing red and pink corals on CITES Appendix II will not ban the trade in these corals, but it will require that the exporting State make a formal declaration that the corals being shipped were not taken from a location or in a manner that is detrimental to the long-term survival of the species.
Seven red and pink coral species are globally traded, but since identification to species level is not possible in finished products, the entire family, more than 30 species, has been proposed for listing on Appendix II.