Monday, June 28, 2010

Scientists call for US to decrease trade of coral reef species

A recent article in the Journal of Marine Policy written by a group of 18 scientists including lead author Brian Tissot, (Washington State University) suggests that international law has failed to protect coral reefs and tropical fish from being threatened by a quickly growing collectors market. The authors point out that reforms in the U.S. could potentially lead to a more responsible, humane, and ecologically sustainable trade in reef material and livestock.

"Our actions have a big impact on what happens in these coral reef ecosystems, which are already hit hard by other forces like global warming, ocean acidification and overfishing," said Tissot, lead author and professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at WSU Vancouver.

Specifically damning data, collected by the United Nation's conservation monitoring program, targets the reefing industry and suggests that trade in coral and coral reef species results in the removal of 30 million fish and 1.5 million live stony corals per year. The aquarium industry alone targets 1,500 species of reef fish and many of these fish die in transit.

This over-harvesting has resulted in the "virtual" extinction of some species, e.g. the Humphead Wrasse, Coral Trout Grouper and Banggai Cardinalfish. The Humphead Wrasse and Coral Trout are both highly sought for food purposes, whereas the Cardinalfish is a very popular aquarium fish.

U.S. buyers account for the majority of trade in live coral, reef fish and invertebrates used in aquariums. The authors recommend leveraging the U.S.' market power to reduce the trade's environmental effects. Among their other recommendations are to protect a wider variety of species, better enforcement of current laws which include tracking a product's chain of custody and reforms in source countries. They also recommend changes in marketing to promote sales of species certified as being humane and sustainable.

"The U.S.," say the authors, "should assume its role as an international leader in coral reef conservation and take steps to reform the international trade it drives."

On a personal note, this story was intriguing to me as I am very interested in coral reefing and have been researching starting my own tank over the past year. At the beginning of my research I was under the naive impression that all fish/coral/invertebrates were originally taken from the reef and then bred in captivity. I now realize that many of these species are harvested directly from the environment (captive raised is becoming more popular and responsible sellers are properly labeling captive bred vs. harvested livestock). I don't plan on changing my plans to begin a reef tank, however I will definitely be making sure as best I can that my livestock is captive bred/raised in a responsible and sustainable manner.

Lance D. Presser has a PhD in Microbiology & Immunology, and is a Public Health Laboratorian.

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