Creating a Demand for Coral Conservation

Addressing international trade of precious corals

When thinking of coral, one might conjure up images of branching aquatic architecture anchored on a reef complete with swaying sea fans and patterned fish, not a couture necklace in a display case. Yet precious corals are being extracted for international jewelry trade at an alarming rate. This is especially true for the deep-sea precious coral family of Coralliidae, which includes more than 30 species of red and pink corals.

Red and pink corals are called precious corals because they are collected and their hard skeletons are used for jewelry, a significant global trade. Their story provides a striking example of the unsustainable nature of coral extraction for trade. Red and pink corals are vibrantly hued coral species found throughout the world's oceans at depths ranging from shallow to thousands of feet. They are a slow-growing species (less than 1cm per year) with a long life span and late reproductive maturity; they are permanently affixed to a substrate. Smaller colonies have higher mortality rates and lower reproductive success. All of these factors make this species particularly vulnerable to overfishing.

Red and pink coral colonies are designated as habitat-forming corals since they provide protection from strong currents and predators and are known for being areas of increased biodiversity. The spaces and gaps between coral branches serve as shelter and refuge for the eggs, larvae and juvenile animals such as shrimp, crabs and fish. They provide crucial services to the ecosystem providing structures suited for feeding, spawning and resting.
Coral and Consumer Demand

Many species of coral are valued for their aesthetic appeal, which has led to their ecological decline over the past decade. Extraction of coral for use in the aquaria and curio trades as well as the jewelry industry has been practiced around the world for centuries, but combined with increasing impacts from other human-induced threats such as pollution, habitat destruction, climate change and ocean acidification, corals are under more pressure than ever. Occurrences of temperature extremes related to climate change, increased nutrient enrichment and sedimentation, fisheries extraction and disease have rendered a dramatic impact on global coral health and abundance. Addressing the international trade, and by extension extraction of coral, is one way to alleviate one of the cumulative pressures on these delicate species.

Red and pink corals have been fished from the Pacific Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea for more than 5,000 years. Traditionally they were destructively extracted by bottom trawls and dredges, which not only extracted coral species but also degraded the remaining habitat; now, as many of the shallow reefs have been depleted, they are harvested by divers primarily with the use of submersibles that descend to great depths to collect these precious corals. The commercial demand for red and pink coral has permanently changed these coral populations reducing average colony size and replacing large colonies with small, immature ones unable to reach sexual maturity. In order to allow these populations to continue to be productive indefinitely, the optimal extraction age for Corallium has been estimated at 98 years; the current practice is to take colonies from the ocean that are less than 14 years old. Serious signs of their decline have appeared in just the past two decades, with landings (total catch brought ashore) decreasing as much as 80 percent since the 1980s. According to the Fisheries and Aquaculture Information and Statistics Service, 43 metric tons of red and pink corals were extracted globally in 2009.

These highly valuable and most widely traded species possess skeletons that fetch prices of up to $25,000 when polished and worked into a necklace. The United States alone imported more than 28 million pieces of Coralliidae between 2001 and 2008. Its economic value is significant, which continues to lead to its decline. Red coral is typically worked into beads for necklaces, earrings, bracelets and rings, or used in their more organic form for the same purposes.
Curbing the Coral Crisis

Removal of red and pink coral in an unsustainable manner will continue to push coral populations into further decline. Scientists state that corals can no longer withstand the current pressures humans and a changing global environment are exerting on them. If the current rate of use continues, the industries, livelihoods and cultural traditions that depend on red and pink corals will cease to exist. Similarly, the marine ecosystem would be impacted through minimized habitat and nursing grounds for other marine animals. Deep sea corals have been increasingly studied for their role as framework builders for deep-water habitats for fish and other species.

Ensuring strong local management and long-term sustainable extraction is in the best interest of not only these species but also the businesses and traditions associated with them. In addition, if the pressures of consumer demand, pollution and overfishing can be reduced, many scientists believe that all corals, not just the precious corals, will have a better chance of overcoming or adapting to the other challenges they face, such as climate change and ocean acidification.

Conscientious business leaders are key to helping ensure corals remain in the ocean where they belong. Leading designers in the jewelry industry are rallying around this cause and striving to make consumers aware that many beautiful, coral-inspired alternatives exist. Through education, consumers can alleviate at least one pressure on these precious resources and support coral conservation by refusing to purchase items made from real coral and spreading the word to others.

On the policy front, attempts to attain international trade monitoring for Coralliidae have failed under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) despite support from both the United States and the European Union who jointly submitted the proposal in 2009. In the United States, domestic policy monitoring trade of this species is being considered under the Coral Reef Conservation Act and other outlets.
What Can You Do?
As a consumer, you have purchasing power. Jewelry doesn't have to cost the earth and a simple pledge not to buy or wear coral products going forward will help. Alternatives to coral include resin, glass, recycled gold and other metals, bakelite, enamel and conflict-free diamonds. By looking to coral as an inspiration, jewelers can raise awareness about the plight of these animals without harming them. You can also:

  • Support jewelers who have taken a pledge not to use coral in their designs or sell coral in their jewelry stores. Click here for a full list.

  • Buy jewelry and products that are coral-inspired to support this practice.

  • Share this information with your friends.

  • Support legislation to protect corals.

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About the Author
Jackie Marks manages SeaWeb's Too Precious to Wear campaign, leading efforts to engage the jewelry, fashion and home d├ęcor industries in coral conservation. The campaign raises awareness of both deep-sea corals and shallow-water coral reefs as living animals, and it seeks to address the threats posed to coral by international trade. SeaWeb is the only international nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to strategically communicating about ocean issues. SeaWeb strives to transform knowledge into action by shining a spotlight on workable, science-based solutions to the most serious threats facing the ocean, such as climate change, pollution and depletion of marine life. They work collaboratively with targeted sectors to encourage market solutions, policies and behaviors that result in a healthy, thriving ocean. By informing and empowering diverse ocean voices and conservation champions, SeaWeb is creating a culture of ocean conservation.