View Celine Cousteau, jewelry designer Temple St. Clair, SeaWeb president Dawn Martin and others explain why we need to protect red and pink corals.
Red and pink corals, the Atlantic bluefin tuna, the polar bear and several shark species are being considered for increased protection when the 15th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) convenes in Doha, Qatar, from March 13 to 25.
Sweden (on behalf of the European Union) and the United States have proposed that all species of red and pink corals, or Coralliidae, be listed under Appendix II of the convention. That move would ensure that any future trade in those species would be strictly monitored and controlled.
Pink and red corals are deep-sea precious corals found in the Mediterranean and Pacific. Between 30 and 50 metric tons are fished annually to meet consumer demand for jewelry and decorative items. The United States alone imported 28 million pieces of red and pink coral between 2001 and 2008. Necklaces made from the smoothed and polished skeletons of red or pink coral colonies can fetch up to US$25,000.
Several aspects of the corals' life history—for example, their late age of maturity and their slow growth—make them particularly vulnerable to overexploitation. In addition, successful reproduction in pink and red corals is critically dependent on large and densely concentrated colonies. Selectively removing the largest colonies or all the colonies in one particular location can have ripple effects on nearby colonies, leading to local extirpation or leaving the colonies that remain more vulnerable to other environmental stresses.
Historically, Corallium rubrum colonies of up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) in height were a common sight in Mediterranean waters. Today, more than 90 percent of colonies in fished areas in the Mediterranean are roughly 1 to 2 inches (3 to 5 centimeters) tall and less than half are sexually mature. Available data in the Pacific shows that landings have declined from 100 to 400 metric tons a year to less than five—despite continued demand.
This will be the second attempt to list red and pink corals on CITES Appendix II. Delegates to the 14th Conference of the Parties in the Netherlands in June 2007 initially agreed to the listing then reversed their decision in a secret ballot on the last day of the meeting following intense lobbying by industry representatives.
Eight species of shark—spiny dogfish, porbeagle, oceanic whitetip, scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead, smooth hammerhead, dusky and sandbar—will also be considered for inclusion under Appendix II. The spiny dogfish and porbeagle are caught extensively for their meat, while the oceanic whitetip and scalloped hammerhead are caught primarily for their fins, as well as incidentally during other fishing operations; for all four species, overfishing has reduced the sharks' abundance in all or part of their range. The remaining four species have been proposed for listing on the grounds that their similarity to scalloped hammerhead would make distinguishing between them extremely difficult for enforcement officers, thus necessitating their inclusion as well.
Overfishing has caused populations of Atlantic bluefin tuna to plummet throughout the species' range. One study has suggested that continued fishing at present levels will soon push bluefin population numbers in the East Atlantic down to only 6 percent of what they were before fishing began and to 18 percent of what their population was in 1970. Monaco has proposed that bluefin be listed under Appendix I, which would ban any international trade. The United States has announced its support for the listing. The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union (EU), has proposed a fishing ban on the species by its members and urged support of the CITES proposal by all 27 EU members. Japan, the fish's biggest consumer, has vowed to oppose the proposal and to ignore it should it be adopted.
The United States has proposed that the polar bear, which is currently listed on Appendix II, should be moved to Appendix I on the grounds that declining habitat—specifically, decreases in the extent and thickness of the sea ice on which they depend—imperils the species' survival and makes it particularly vulnerable to continued trade.
For Further Information: SeaWeb's Julia Roberson will be blogging daily from the CITES meeting at seawebvoicesinaction.blogspot.com. For further background on red and pink corals and SeaWeb's Too Precious to Wear campaign, visit the campaign website at www.tooprecioustowear.org. Background on CITES CoP15, including listing proposals, is available at www.cites.org.
Contact: Julia Roberson, SeaWeb. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Warming sea temperatures may lead to increases in bleaching of corals, such as this now white coral off Fiji. Simon Bonner, University of British Columbia
The death of 95 percent of coral reefs surrounding the Galápagos Islands almost 30 years ago may be an illustration of the future awaiting at least some reefs elsewhere as they are assailed by threats such as climate change and ocean acidification, say researchers.
Joan Kleypas of the National Center for Atmospheric Research described the sudden declines in Galápagos reefs at a symposium entitled "Will Coral Reefs Disappear?" at February's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She observed that, from mid-1982 to mid-1983, the eastern Pacific experienced increased sea surface temperatures as a result of an exceptionally strong El Niño–Southern Oscillation event. When reefs are subjected to temperatures even one degree Celsius above their normal range for a month or more, they become stressed, expelling the symbiotic algae on which they depend for nourishment. (Because the algae—known as zooxanthellae—provide the corals with their color, their expulsion is known as "coral bleaching.") This is what happened with the corals in the Galápagos; the exposed reefs then became overrun by turf algae, which were in turn fed upon by sea urchins. In the course of grazing, the urchins ground down the reef substrate, contributing to the reefs' ultimate dissolution.
Speaking at the same symposium, Simon Donner of the University of British Columbia explained how researchers use climate models to determine the likely frequency of bleaching events such as one that struck in the Caribbean in 2005. In a modeled climate without anthropogenic influences such as greenhouse gases, he observed, such "hotspots" were extremely rare events, to be expected once every 1,000 years. However under a scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions continue at present rates, by 2030 there is a 75 percent chance that they occur in any given year.
"Even if we froze emissions [levels] today, the planet still has some warming left in it. That's enough to make bleaching dangerously frequent in reefs worldwide," he said.
Hawaiian Monk Seal Population Continuing to Decline
The endangered Hawaiian monk seal is declining in numbers by 4 percent a year. Scientists believe less than 1,000 will remain within a few years. James P. McVey/NOAA
Fewer Hawaiian monk seal pups were born in 2009 than for at least 10 years, exacerbating concerns that the species is destined for extinction, according to government scientists.
Biologists with NOAA Fisheries counted 119 seal pups born in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands last year, down from 138 in 2008. An estimated 1,100 monk seals are in Hawaii, the significant majority of which are in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. But the species is declining in numbers by 4 percent a year, suggesting the total number will drop below 1,000 within three to four years. The Hawaiian monk seal, classified as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, is one of two surviving monk seal species; the other, the Mediterranean monk seal, has fewer than 500 individuals and is considered critically endangered. A third species, the Caribbean monk seal, is extinct.
According to NOAA Fisheries, the Hawaiian monk seal is declining primarily because juveniles in particular are unable to find enough food. As a result, only one in five pups survive to adulthood. Other threats include entanglement in marine debris and fishing gear as well as loss of habitat from coastal erosion. In addition, the numbers of seals remaining are now so small that genetic diversity is low; one major disease outbreak might be sufficient to decimate the population. In 1997, two-thirds of the animals in the largest breeding colony of Mediterranean monk seals died during the course of two months; it remains uncertain whether the cause was a virus or a toxic algal bloom.