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International Trade in Live Corals Could Help Preserve Wild Corals and Coral Reef Ecosystems

13.12.2012
The international trade in corals used to be primarily a curio trade of dried skeletons, but now focuses on live corals for the marine reef aquarium trade.

A team of Roger Williams University (RWU), Boston University (BU), Conservation International(CI), and the New England Aquarium (NEAq) researchers has been studying this relatively new development and have published their findings about this unique trade and its long-term implications.

The article, “Long-term trends of coral imports into the United States indicate future opportunities for ecosystem and societal benefits,” appears in the December issue of the journal Conservation Letters.

Assessing 21 years of live coral import data for the United States, the researchers found that the coral trade increased over 8% per year between 1990 until the mid-2000s, and has since decreased by 9% annually. This decrease is mostly due to the current economic climate. The timing of the peak and decline varies among species, and is a result of the rising popularity of mini-reef ecosystem aquariums, the global financial crisis, and an increase in domestic aquaculture production.

The live coral trade for home aquariums has traditionally been viewed in absolute terms as a threat to these undersea areas of high biodiversity. However, realities are often grey. In the case of coral reefs, supplying the home aquarium trade with locally cultivated corals can provide real economic benefits to small island communities, and thus, an incentive to protect the reefs from which the mother colonies are obtained.

In their article, the researchers highlight this dichotomy and demonstrate that recent changes in the trade of live corals for the reef aquarium hobby are resulting in new opportunities for conservation. “The trade has moved from a wild harvest to mariculture production, a change sparked by long-term efforts to produce a sustainable income to small island countries such as the Solomon Islands and also by the government of Indonesia,” says Andrew Rhyne, lead-author and Roger Williams University assistant professor of marine biology and research scientist at the New England Aquarium. This shift from a wild fishery to a mariculture product poses new opportunities and challenges for conservationists.

Coinciding with the publication of this study, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has just proposed to protect 66 stony corals under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). An unintended consequence of this ESA listing would be to eliminate the benefits of the trade revealed by the study, which include elevated value for intact coral reefs, and an income source that is sorely needed in these island nations where hundreds of millions of people rely on reef resources for subsistence.

According to the researchers, the trade is still rapidly evolving, creating challenges, such as the addition of new species that outpace effective management strategies. “New species in the live coral trade initially command high prices, but as they become common the price drops with feedback effects to the trade,” said Les Kaufman, co-author and Boston University professor of biology and research fellow at Conservation International.

“The live coral trade offers opportunities for coral reef ecosystem conservation and sustainable economic benefits to coastal communities,” says Rhyne. Co-author, Michael Tlusty of the New England Aquarium adds, “that the realization of these externalities will require effective data tracking”.

Coral reefs are under numerous human induced threats. These include the global threats of warming oceans that are becoming more acidic, and local threats such as improper land use resulting in increased nutrient loading, and overfishing, which can trigger an ecological cascade resulting in blooms of seaweed that inhibit coral growth.

While western countries are the source of the major threats to these corals reefs (because of globally-distributed carbon emissions), island nations have more than income at stake. Trade can be a powerful conservation incentive, but this emerging local conservation tool is at risk of being lost due to the well-intended but rigid rules of the ESA, here invoked to protect corals and coral reefs globally from the billions of tons of carbon released into the atmosphere by developed nations. A more selective regulatory approach that gives credit to local efforts to manage reef resources wisely may be warranted.

About Boston University—Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized private research university with more than 30,000 students participating in undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs. As Boston University’s largest academic division, the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences is the heart of the BU experience with a global reach that enhances the University’s reputation for teaching and research. In 2012, BU joined the Association of American Universities (AAU), a consortium of 62 leading research universities in the United States and Canada.

About the New England Aquarium—The New England Aquarium is one of the most prominent and popular aquariums in North America and is a recognized international leader in ocean conservation, education and research. The Aquarium is among the region’s most-visited tourist attractions and is cultivating widespread public awareness about the benefits and responsibility in improving the health of the oceans and the earth.

About Roger Williams University—Roger Williams University, located in Bristol, R.I., is a leading independent, coeducational university with programs in the liberal arts and the professions, where students become community- and globally-minded citizens through project-based, experiential learning. Offering 43 majors and a plethora of co-curricular activities as well as study abroad options, RWU is dedicated to the success of students, commitment to a set of core values, the pursuit of affordable excellence and to providing a relevant, world-class education above all else. In the last decade, the University has achieved unprecedented successes including recognition as one of the best colleges in the nation by Forbes, a College of Distinction by Student Horizons, Inc. and as both a best college in the Northeast and one of the nation’s greenest universities by The Princeton Review.

About Conservation International—Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, our global biodiversity, for the long term well-being of people. Founded in 1987 and marking its 25th anniversary in 2012, CI has headquarters in the Washington DC area, and 900 employees working in nearly 30 countries on four continents, plus 1,000+ partners around the world. For more information, please visit at www.conservation.org , or on Facebook or Twitter.

Author contact for questions about the study:

Andrew L. Rhyne, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Biology and Marine Biology
Roger Williams University
One Old Ferry Road
Bristol, RI 02809
arhyne@rwu.edu

Andrew L. Rhyne | Newswise
Further information:
http://www.bu.edu

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