[Coral-List] THE HARRY POTTER CORAL RE: Coral collection vs farming

Andrew Bruckner bruckner at livingoceansfoundation.org
Tue Oct 21 14:37:19 EDT 2008

Dear Sarah and coral-listers.

While we all recognize the problems associated with the trade in coral reef
species, each of the previous postings on this subject highlighted many of
the concerns and issues surrounding both the curio and live trade, so I am
not going to get into the debate regarding whetehr or not corals should be
in trade.  I think it is incorrect to state that CITES has not helped
promote a more sustainable trade in corals, and wanted solely to clarify
some of Sarah's points on the value of CITES. 

To export in a CITES Appendix II listed species, shipments must include a
valid CITES permit (if the country is a party to CITES) or a similar type of
permit for no-CITES Parties. These permits are issued by the CITES
management Authority in the country of export, based on guidance from their
CITES Scientific Authority (who is supposed to make a nondetriment finding
which includes an allowable quota or some other measure to ensure the trade
will not threaten the survival of that species or its role in the
ecosystem). While there are problems with these findings (due to
limited/inadequate management, lack of information on the status of the
resource, lack of monitoring, inadequate science to determine how many
corals can be harvested etc.), it is a first step to regulate the levels of
trade. The U.S. and other countries will confiscate the shipment if it does
not include valid CITES permits, and the US has done this on multiple

CITES allows each country that is a Party to the Convention to take more
stingent steps as they see fit to assist in conservation, such as the
requirement of import permits - but the particular steps are up to each
country. For example, the US does not require import permits, while the EU
does.  The EU also has legislation that allows them to prohibit shipments of
CITES Appendix II listed species if they feel that the finding made by that
exporting country is wrong. The  EU has one this twice (1999, 2007) now with
corals coming from Indonesia, and currently something like 9 genera of
corals cannot be sent from Indonesia to the EU countries. The US does not
have this ability at this time. In addition, some countries (the
Philippines) have implemented a ban in export of any CITES listed species,
so any coral, seahorses, humphead wrasse and giant clams that come out of
the Philippines have been illegally exported. 

The listing of a species is only the first step in their conservation. It
will force a country to adopt some sort of management (quota etc.) for the
resource and it requires that they determine what level of trade is
non-detrimental. It also requires that both importing and exporting
countries provide annual reports on the total trade in CITES listed species
- while this may not include illegal harvest/trade, it has provided valuable
data on the amount of trade for species whose trade was not previously

One of the difficulties for countries when a species is listed (seahorses
are a good recent example) is that they often don't have the information
needed to make a NDF, or they lack the capacity to implement a management
plan (since many of these exporting countries are developing countries).  To
address this problem in seahorses, a committee developed an interim measure
(seahorses must reach a minimum size) that would allow countries the ability
to keep trading while protecting a portion of the resource (e.g., allowing
them to reach sexual maturity and reporduce at least once before harvest),
until they can implement more thorough management approaches. Seahorses were
added to CITES mainly because of overexploitation associated with the
Traditional Chinese Medicines (about 20-30 million animals per year or over
70 metric tons dried!), and less so to address the curio and live trade
(which is in the range of hundreds of thousands of animals, including
captive bred animals for aquaria).  One of the largest problems with
seahorses is that they are easily transported in personal luggage -
thousands can fit in a suitcase and unfortunately the US (or other
countries) just does not have the capacity to inspect each piece of personal

The real importance of CITES  occurs 5 or so years after a species was
listed - when a Signficant Trade Review is undertaken. This step includes an
examination of the management plan, monitoring program, population status,
threats, harvest and trade of the species under review for each range state.
The committee that evaluates these will identify countries of low, medium
and high concern (based on the adequacy of their management plan and
non-detriment findings, and any knowledge on how well the species is doing).
For countries of medium and high concern, they will present recommendations
to a country on steps they need to take, and also a time frame for
implementing those steps. If the country fails to address the problem, CITES
can implement a ban in trade from that country.  This was recently done for
queen conch, and it resulted in temporary bans in trade from several
countries, as well as a multiyear process evalauting options to improve
regional management.

While there are many problems with CITES (in addition to the difficulties in
getting permits to transport specimens for scientific research), this is the
only international tool we currently have to address unsustainable trade in
coral reef species. In the US, we do not have legislation that would allow
us to ban imports of coral reef species, unless they were illegaly
acquired/traded or there is some other Lacey Act violation.  Without CITES,
there would be no other legal binding international treaty that regulates

I was also a bit confused about all this "magic transformation" that is
occurring. Just because something is listed as a curio or souveneir, doesn't
mean it can be exported/imported without a CITES permit. Curio or souveneir
may reflect the code included on the permit (for corals, informationis
included on whether it is live or dead, and whether it is traded as a piece
(live in water) or by weight (dried skeletons). Perhaps (probably?) many
shipments get in illegally, without appropriate permits, but US FWS  does a
commendable job inspecting the thousands of boxes of fishes corals and other
animals that come into the US each year(given their small staff of
enforcement officers).  A trip to one of the ports (e.g., Miami or Los
Angeles) will give you a much better understanding of what they are up
against -these ports see thousands of crates of wildlife each day, many of
which are alive and must be processed immediately so the animals/plants
don't die.  Not only are they responsible for identifying and verifying
CITES vs non CITES animals and plants, and ensuring the permits are all in
order, they need to verify the identification of species, for all wildlife
both in raw and prcocesed form.  Just considering corals, this is not an
easy task especially when they are live and in a bag of very murkey water.
They have also successfully prosecuted several violations for illegal trade
in coral reef species over the last decade, including a large ring of
illegal coral trade from the Phillipines (destined for the shell shops in
Florida).  I am sure illegal shipments  unintentially slip through the
cracks, but instead of criticizing their effectiveness, it seems to me that
a better approach would be to support what they are trying to do and support
their requests for increased staff so they can do their job.

There has been some talk about coral mariculture -there are now dozens of
coral farms in southeast Asia and south Pacific growing corals for
international trade(mostly aquarium organisms) . At this time, CITES has not
adopted a reporting code that separates corals produced on these farms from
wild harvested corals, so they are all being reported as "wild" (or at least
they are supposed to be reported as such). While this has a disadvantage
from a data perspective, it also does not help promote this alternative, as
there are no obvious benefits for the "farmer" in terms of CITES
requirements.  However, we have also seen a disparate number of approaches
to coral farming, ranging from environmentally friendly practices (e.g., 3rd
generation frags are exported, with broodstock maintained on the farm and no
additional harvest needed from the wild) to "psuedo-wild harvest" (whole
colonies are removed from the reef, fragmented and attached to a base, and
shipped out within days to weeks with a claim that they are "farm-raised").
Until there are international guidelines for best practices in coral
mariculture, and some way to ensure that "registered" farms adhere to the
guidelines, I don't think it would be appropriate to report these as
ranched, maricultured etc.  I do think we need to work together to address
both unsustainable wild harvest and to improve/standardize practices
implemented by coral farms.  Several years ago NOAA led a workshop in
Indonesia to develop sustainable guidleines for wild harvest, which also
included recommendations on approaches to assess and monitor coral
collection areas to determine sustainable levels of harvest. The approaches
were tested in Indonesia, but there still is inadequate capacity to carry
out the detailed assessments that would be needed to really verify if their
current quotas are in fact sustainable. Some of this will be evaluated at an
upcoming CITES workshop in Mexico this November- where experts will review
how countries are making non-detriment findings for a whole range of species
including corals, giant clams, black coral and queen conch, with the goal of
coming up with more science-based approaches to make NDFs that are
meaningful and will be more likely to promote sustainable harvest of coral
reef species and all other wildlife as well.  

While many folks may be opposed to the trade in coral reef species for
curios and aquaria, there are both costs (e.g. environmental damage) and
benefits (sources of income in developing countries)that need to be
considered.  Unless the US adopts new legislation to address some of these
concerns, the best we can do at this time is to support existing
conservation efforts and international treaties, and work with relevant
groups to address the deficiencies, instead of just bashing them. Its not an
easy task, but banning the trade is also not the answer. 


Andy Bruckner
Chief Project Scientist
Living Oceans Foundation
8181 Professional Place, Suite 215
Landover, MD  20785
OFC:  301-577-1288
FAX:  301-577-1288
bruckner at livingoceansfoundation.org

-----Original Message-----
From: coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
[mailto:coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov] On Behalf Of Sarah
Sent: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 12:47 PM
To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
Subject: [Coral-List] THE HARRY POTTER CORAL RE: Coral collection vs farming

Dear Coral-listers,
If I could gather all the stony corals now on display at all the shell shops
in Florida, and with a magic wand bring them back to life, I could build
myself a whole coral reef. 
This Harry Potter adventure is not as off the wall as you might think.
Indeed, the trading of hard corals and other interesting creatures for the
purpose of coffee table display has a magic of its own.
To illustrate, let's review the trading regulations for CITES appendix II
species, particularly, the import and export permits required.
According to article IV, export of a species for the purpose of
international trade may be authorized by the granting of an export permit.
But the import of a species does not require a specific "import permit",
rather the import "shall require prior presentation of either an export
permit or a re-export certificate". The export permits have to provide quite
a detailed amount of information, (species, location, etc.) the main purpose
is to ensure that there is compliance with CITES II of controlled trade in
order to avoid threatening the species with extinction. While well
intentioned, I wonder how many of those export permits truly exist.
Seahorses (Hippocampus spp.) are also in CITES appendix II, and they
magically transform into "curios" once they are collected from the ocean.
Because that is the description you find in any shipment of fully dried
seahorses arriving to a shell shop in your neighborhood. I have also seen
the word "curios" or "souvenir" attached to a delivery box full of very dead
stony corals, at a Florida shell shop that shall remain nameless (just
before I was literally pushed out of the store) I have asked high and low
how this magic transformation occurs, even talked to the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife folks sitting at one of the educational stands during ICRS. No
logical answer so far.
I don't think CITES appendix II is making any difference in reducing the
extraction of stony corals for any kind of trade (souvenir, aquarium,
etc).And if anyone is working on true coral aquaculture as a means of
sustainable development for local coastal communities, their carefully
harvested corals are most likely diluted in a sea of unsustainable harvest.
Unsustainable coral harvest destroys coral reefs by net removal of the
habitat itself. It also renders the message of conservation dysfunctional:
"How can coral reefs be in such dire situation, if I can go to any souvenir
shop and buy myself as many corals as I want ?" that is the common question
asked by the common folk. 
How can we balance the existence of well-planned, community-managed and
small-scale coral harvest which ensures sustainable opportunities for
coastal communities in the Philippines (for example), with the need to
drastically reduce, or completely eliminate the ongoing unsustainable coral
Perhaps we should all work a bit magic of our own, and put together all the
thinking brains in coral-list to find a solution.

Sarah Frias-Torres, Ph.D. 
Marine Conservation Biologist
Ocean Research and Conservation Association, Florida USA
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Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov

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