Coral Reefs An Endangered Ecosystem

Coral reefs are among the world's most fragile and endangered ecosystems. They host an extraordinary variety of marine plants and animals and are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world. They are a significant source of food to low-income coastal communities, a source of income and employment through tourism and marine recreation, and offer countless other benefits to humans, including unique chemicals with medicinal properties. Despite this, coral reefs around the world are rapidly being degraded by a number of human activities including over-fishing, coastal development, and the introduction of sewage fertilizer and sediment. Trade in reef species is a strong additional pressure on this already highly threatened ecosystem.

Trade in Coral Reef Species

Coral is often exported from reef areas to be sold as marine souvenirs. Although coral collection is illegal in the US and a number of other nations, coral and other reef souvenirs can still be legally imported from areas with threatened coral reefs, in spite of the devastation that this trade causes the reef ecosystem. These destructive trade practices must be stopped.

Ways you can help stop unsustainable trade in coral reef souvenirs:

  • Do not purchase coral jewelry or other marine souvenirs unless you are certain that they have been farmed or produced in sustainable aquaculture operations.
  • Ask suppliers of marine souvenirs where they obtain their stocks, and encourage them to contact government or environmental organizations for advice in regulating collection so that reefs are not destroyed.
  • Support legislation prohibiting the importation of coral for private use.

Cyanide, one of the most toxic poisons known, is currently being used to catch live fish in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. Fishermen stun the fish with sodium cyanide in order to catch them live to sell to luxury live fish markets in Asia or to tropical aquarium owners. Cyanide not only poisons the fish, but also destroys their habitat, killing coral polyps and the symbiotic algae and other small organisms necessary for healthy reefs. Cyanide fishing has already caused mass destruction to coral reefs in the Philippines and Indonesia, and is spreading rapidly to other parts of Asia. We must halt this criminal practice of coral reef destruction.

Ways you can help stop cyanide fishing:

  • Support legislation prohibiting the importation of fish that have been caught using cyanide.
  • If you own a tropical aquarium, demand that your aquarium store only purchase fish that have been certified cyanide-free.
  • Do not purchase fish from a live fish restaurant unless you are certain that it has been caught without the use of cyanide.

Background Information

Importing Coral, "Live Rock," and Other Reef Species

A number of species of coral are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix II controlled trade category, which requires export permits in order to engage in international trade of these species. The collection or exportation of coral is banned in the U.S. and many other nations with threatened coral reefs. Unfortunately, this restriction does not apply to importing coral from other regions where coral collection is allowed (such as Indonesia or Papua New Guinea), and the reef destruction occurring in these areas can be devastating. Furthermore, coral collected in countries where collection is illegal (such as the Philippines) is often exported and sold under the pretext of having been collected legally in a different country.

In addition to corals, many other reef species are sold as souvenirs or for private aquariums, including giant clams, shells, puffer fish, seahorses, starfish, sea urchins, sea fans, sponges, and "live rock" covered with tropical barnacles or other crustaceans. Of these, only giant clams are currently protected under the CITES Appendix II. There are some local regulations on the collection of a few of these species, but these regulations do not prevent importation into the U.S. The collection of reef dwellers for souvenirs and for private aquariums is not only detrimental to the individual species population, but can also cause extensive damage to the entire coral reef ecosystem.

If coral reef habitats are to be effectively protected, it is necessary that more comprehensive regulations be placed on the trade of coral reef species. Coral imported to the U.S. should be restricted to scientific research and public aquariums. Trade in other reef plants and animals should be banned unless it is certain that they come from a sustainably managed program.

Tropical Fish and Cyanide Fishing

Another factor having adverse effects on coral reefs is cyanide fishing for the live fish industry. Certain live tropical fish are very popular in the Asian seafood market and others are sold around the world to individual aquarium owners. Fishermen stun fish by squirting sodium cyanide into reef areas where the fish live. Cyanide not only poisons the fish, but kills their coral reef habitat and the other small invertebrates living on the reef as well. To capture fish hiding in the reef, some cyanide fishermen rip the coral reefs apart with crowbars to capture the disoriented fish, causing further reef destruction. The most intense damage caused by cyanide fishing has taken place in the Philippines and Indonesia, the regions of the world with the greatest marine biological diversity. While it usually takes decades for coral reefs to recover from the effects of cyanide, the fishing pressures in these regions are currently too high to allow any recovery at all.

For many years the live fish trade has provided an important source of income to many coral reef communities. Because fishermen are paid substantially more for live fish than for dead ones, a complete ban on the live fish trade would be counter-productive, making it necessary for fishermen to intensify subsistence fishing and harvesting of the reefs. Instead, measures should be taken to ensure that live reef fish are collected sustainably (by methods such as hand-nets), without the use of cyanide. The Great Barrier Reef has managed to set up effective controls on illegal cyanide fishing, and the Philippines has recently established educational programs and set up detection facilities to monitor fish exports for traces of cyanide.

Although cyanide fishing is illegal throughout the Asia/Pacific region, enforcement is relatively poor. Bribery and corruption of government officials are commonplace in the live fish trade. Stricter laws and enforcement are needed to prevent cyanide fishing. Although it is illegal to export fish caught with cyanide in many countries (such as the Philippines), these laws are frequently circumvented. In order to effectively stop this practice, countries importing live fish need to become more active in discouraging trade in fish caught with cyanide. Before importation into the United States is allowed, live fish should be certified as cyanide-free.