Calls for change as tonnes of coral taken from Great Barrier Reef

Australia remains one of the world's top exporters of corals despite experts urging countries to work towards limiting the trade to 'the lowest level possible'.

The marine aquarium trade is booming, with research showing 55 million invertebrates and fish are sold globally every year. Corals feature prominently in the sector, thanks to hobbyists’ preferences for mini reef replicas.

Combined with their use in jewellery and curios, the aquarium trade has led to stony corals being the most heavily exploited marine animals in internationally regulated trade.

Australia is among the top exporters of corals, according to records from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates global trade in the animals and many other wild species.

Close up of a coral being studied using a measuring tool.
A better understanding of harvest levels in different species is required to protect the Great Barrier Reef, according to one expert. Source: Morgan Pratchett

The country’s largest fishery is in Queensland, where commercial collectors hand pick live stony corals, coral rock, soft corals, and sea anemones from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, outside of certain restricted zones. The maximum allowable commercial ‘catch’ in the Queensland Coral Fishery (QCF) is 200,000 kilograms annually – although the actual harvest is often less – with limits in place for different types of coral products and several species.

Is coral collecting sustainable?

Coral reefs worldwide face existential threats from climate change, plastic pollution and disease. Indeed, 2023 saw widespread bleaching in the Americas and scientists warn 2024 may prove even worse across the Indo-Pacific. Reef ecosystems can also be severely damaged by storms and other extreme weather events.

Given these threats, the coral trade is facing increased scrutiny, including extraction in the QCF.

Left: Children looking at corals in a tank. Right - clown fish and coral in a tank.
With climate change, plastic pollution, and disease already affecting reefs, there are warnings to limit commercial extraction of wild corals. Source: Getty (File)

According to Morgan Pratchett, marine biology and aquaculture professor at James Cook University, coral collection on the Great Barrier Reef has long been presumed to be sustainable, due to the reef’s size and selective harvesting. But amid rising threats to reefs from other dangers, he says a good understanding of wild stocks’ status and their sensitivity to non-fishery threats is essential to determine whether harvesting is sustainable.

Presently, the necessary understanding about corals in the QCF is lacking, which is why Pratchett is involved in assessing potentially at-risk corals in this fishery. “This is the first step to ensuring that coral harvesting is sustainable,” he says.

Pratchett also suggests a better understanding of harvest levels in different species is necessary. This applies to the industry more broadly, as many corals are only identified at their genus level in trade records, due to species being difficult to distinguish. This makes exploitation levels unclear.

How coral farming could save reefs

Amid uncertainties over the coral trade’s impact, some countries, such as Indonesia, are now farming many internationally traded corals, although these operations often still rely on extraction from 'donor colonies' of corals in the wild.

Others like Belize don’t allow commercial exports of live stony corals. At a CITES meeting in 2023, its fisheries officer, Mauro Gongora, urged countries to work towards limiting the trade to “the lowest level possible,” due to corals’ importance and vulnerability.

Belize corals underwater.
Belize (pictured) no longer allows live stony corals to be commercially taken, however Australia is among the top exporters of corals. Source: Mauro Gongora

Reefs are home to around 25 per cent of all known marine life. According to the United Nations, the ecosystems are worth $US375 billion annually in terms of the resources and benefits they provide, meaning their destruction can threaten food security, jobs, and more, Gongora says.

He also emphasises that reef-building corals protect coastlines and people because reef structures provide a buffer from storms. For instance, the Great Barrier Reef limits incoming wave energy, thereby safeguarding coastal ecosystems and people, as The Conversation reported.

Globally, the extent of living corals on reefs has dropped in area by half since the 1950s, according to research. With the threats they face showing no sign of abating, Gongora warns, "if we are not very careful in terms of how we regulate the trade of corals, we can find ourselves in very big problems in the future.”

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

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