[Coral-List] Worst places to harvest coral for aquarium trade?

Ryan Donnelly Ryan at cairnsmarine.com
Fri Apr 7 06:53:57 EDT 2017

Dear Coral Listers

I was surprised to read the post by Damien Beri that singled out Australian wild collected corals in his quest to identify areas of the world where such fisheries are detrimental to the environment. There are plenty of reef associated fisheries around the tropical world bidding for the distinction as the most degrading but you won’t find them in Australia.

The coral fishery on the Great Barrier Reef, in particular, is a model for assessment, management and monitoring to which fishery managers elsewhere should aspire. Sadly, they are unlikely to achieve this level of oversight due to a lack of resources and, in many instances, a lack of political will as there is usually few income generating options in scattered communities and villages.

The transition to cash economies in recent decades has driven increased participation in cash generating opportunities. Unfortunately, these opportunities have demonstrated a pattern of both natural resource depletion and exploitation of the people in the communities. We’ve seen it with the cyanide fisheries for both aquarium and food fish; and governments selling access to tuna resources on the High Seas in return for national development assistance. The same can be said of access to forestry resources. It’s a long discussion in itself.

In Australia, there are three fisheries that supply corals for display in aquaria – very small fisheries in Western Australia and Northern Territory with a handful of collectors; and a larger but still small fishery on the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland. All three Australian fisheries have limited entry, a small number of licence holders and an annual quota that is actively monitored and enforced. That in itself puts them miles ahead of coral fisheries elsewhere.

Then there is the third party scientific assessments of species vulnerability and ecological risk that is undertaken by the Queensland state government. These assessments guide management and monitoring of the fishery. Every three years, the fishery manager must provide a report on the environmental performance of the fishery to the Australian government’s Environment Department, where it is further assessed for eligibility for export. The industry would not be viable without export so its survival is dependent on environmental performance and the robustness of fisheries management.

As all hard coral species are CITES Appendix II, a Non-detriment Finding is produced as a key pillar in the decision to grant export eligibility. Both the CITES report and the report that grants export eligibility contain conditions that must be achieved prior to the subsequent export assessment three years later. This continuous improvement model separates all Australian commercial fisheries from others around the world.

On top of that, the industry association Pro-vision Reef has developed a Stewardship Action Plan that integrates directly into the cycle of assessment, management and monitoring to drive down risks identified through the scientific assessments and to hasten the model of continuous improvement.

The Stewardship Action Plan also includes contingency planning for events associated with climate change and links directly to the disturbance response plan of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. This enables industry to commit to modified operation of the fishery to allow affected areas to recover after disturbance.

Lastly, the collectors on the Great Barrier Reef initiated a project and contributed a substantial sum of cash to research undertaken by the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. The study is determining life history characteristics, distribution and abundance of species in the fishery for which such information is unknown. This includes species collected in inter-reefal environments that remain largely unstudied because they are not associated with coral reefs.

The question is not whether wild harvest is right or wrong, but whether it’s sustainable. It deserves better than glib dismissal. Australia is fortunate in that there is sufficient social order whereby good fisheries management and well resourced enforcement can give rise to genuinely good wild fisheries. This is not the case everywhere a coral fishery operates. And whilst developing coral culture is a worthwhile pursuit, it is not mutually exclusive to sustainable wild collection, particularly with all the safeguards that characterise the Great Barrier Reef fishery.

Ryan Donnelly

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