Coral reef trade and you

By Hannah Scutter BSc

Marine aquariums are becoming increasingly more popular amongst amateur enthusiast who want to bring a small piece of paradise into urban living rooms. Items such as corals, live rock, marine fish and invertebrates are all appearing in our pet shops. Naturally occurring wild corals can be found off the coast of Indonesia, Australia and the Philippines and as well as being home to many fish and invertebrates they also play a vital role in local populations through a range of ecosystem services. Such coral reefs can provide a large market in the food industry with 15 tonnes of fish and sea food harvested per hectare per year [1]. Specimens can be sold as souvenirs and be part of a large attraction for tourists bringing income to nearby coastal communities. Corals are also a natural storm defence by acting as a wave dispersion system and have been used in the medical industry as a treatment for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease [2]. Together the value of such services is unknown but the exportation of live corals for the use in ornamental domestic tanks was estimated to be over $200 million USD in 2000 [3]. Of these varied species the harder corals are favoured. However, these are the slower growing of the taxa and are therefore sparse in supply. Because of this they have been declared as vulnerable to exploitation by CITIES since 1990 [4]. If such species were to be eradicated then smaller faster growing corals would thrive and bring with them ‘pest’ species and algae disturbances [4]. This potentially changing our aquatic ecosystems forever. A fifth of coral has already been lost due to climate change and exploitation and an estimated further 15% will be lost over the next decade unless we the consumer try to change things.

From the sea bed to your tank

Following a coral collector around the Islands off Fiji, 200 pieces of coral can be collected per day, six days a week [5]. Once collected the specimens are taken by boat to a holding station in land where they are kept in fresh seawater tanks. Despite the lack of filtration systems there is a less than 2% mortality rate of those collected, although colours have been seen to deteriorate. Shipments are made twice a week to the US and Europe where tanks are emptied and refilled ready for the next incoming batch [5]. Once the specimens have reached the wholesaler in the receiving country they are held similarly to the holding stations off Fiji but with many filters and protein skimmers and are then quarantined for sale purposes.

Collection and exportation of corals from the Philippines, Florida, Bali, Guam Samoa, Puerto Rico and Hawaii have since been banned, with many sites of imports to follow [4]. Currently many corals bought today have been collected from Indo pacific countries and Australia. Where corals were once bought for $1-5 USD each (1985) can now be found selling for $180 USD plus [4]. A kilogram of coral can be anywhere between $500 and $1800 USD [6]. Despite this increase the tourism industry that the Great Barrier Reef attracts is far greater than the profit of such coral trade and therefore is forcing diving collectors to target smaller unknown ‘pockets’ of corals further out to sea. Smaller ‘pockets’ of corals are at higher risk of extinction as there are likely to be self-seeding groups of corals and once they are taken they cannot be replaced [4]. In the Philippines a depth restriction for collection has meant that those corals at deeper depths can act as reproducing reservoirs that will then feed the shallower clusters being disturbed [4]. Unfortunately Australia’s depth restriction has relaxed over the years impacting this cycle.

The future is coral farming

Aquaculture is the way forward. Similar to fish, coral species can be farmed in a controlled environment and therefore reduce the pressures on the demand for wild caught specimens and therefore reducing the impact on natural coral ecosystems. Commercial aquaculture facilities currently thrive in countries such as Florida, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan [7]. European farms have more recently been developed situated closer to the consumers in Spain, Czech Republic, Belgium and Holland, thus reducing transport costs and making them more freely available [7].
As a consumer there are ways you can reduce the risk of buying wild caught specimens by always asking the owner where the specimen you are interested in originated from. Whatever the reply you can always ask further details regarding their handling and transportation. Researching websites and magazines can sometimes provide additional information and insights into their rarity and therefore the likely hood of their origin. The cost of individual species will also be an indicator as rarer wild caught items will be significantly more expensive than the more common farmed ones.


[1] UNEP, United Nations Evironmental Programme, Coral Reefs [online].…/ta…/129794/language/en-US/Default.aspx (Accessed 31 March 2016).
[2] NOAA, (2014) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. [online]. (Accessed 31 March 2016)
[3]Bruckner, A. W. (2000) New Threat to Coral Reefs: Trade in Coral Organisms Issues in Science and Technology, 17, (1) pp63-8.
[4] Jones, A. M. (2011) Raiding the Coral Nurseries? Diversity, 3, pp466-482.
[5] Paletta, M. (2005) Advanced Aquarist. [online]. (Accessed 07 March 2016).
[6] Cato, J. C., Brown, C. L. (2003) Marine Ornamental Species; Collection, Culture and Conservation. Iowa: A Blackwell Publishing Company.
[7] Livengood E. J., Chapman F. A. (2007) The Ornamental Fish Trade: An Introduction with Perspectives for Responsible Aquarium Fish ownership. University of Florida IFAS Extension.