Precious Red and Pink Corals Need Protection Under CITES

Categories: Environment
In last week's cover story, we looked at why reef-building corals are being plundered from the South Pacific and sent to the shores of Florida. But the curio trade isn't the only industry fueling the death of coral. 

For centuries, jewelry makers have harvested precious red and pink corals. These deep-water corals are cousins of the reef-building type seized in Tampa, which grow at shallower depths and much more quickly. While a reef-building staghorn coral might grow between 12-15 centimeters a year, a red coral might just grow a few millimeters in the same span of time. 

"Say if you remove a piece of red coral the size of a bush, you've just removed something that could take hundreds of years to be replaced," says Andrew Baker, a University of Miami marine biologist. "Perversely enough the so-called 'precious' red corals are the only type of coral that are not actually protected by CITES."

CITES is short for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. More than 170 countries, including the U.S., have signed on to this international framework, which is intended to help monitor the ecological impact of the wildlife trade. 

Jewelry set made from precious red corals
A few years back, jewelry giant Tiffany & Co. and a nonprofit called SeaWeb tapped Baker to be the scientific face of "Too Precious Too Wear," an advocacy campaign with two goals; reduce consumer interest in jewelry and decor products made from coral, and see that precious red and pink corals gain protection under Appendix II of CITES. 

Tiffany waged PR campaigns, erected display stands in stores, and leveraged its position as a market leader to nudge other retailers to adopt a "no coral" sales policy -- a strategy employed by Tiffany for years. Vanity Fair selected the movement for it's 2010 Hall of Fame, and other retailers jumped onboard. 

While the campaign raised awareness on the plight of red and pink corals, it fell short of securing codified protection for the animals. In March of 2010, a proposal from the U.S and EU to add red and pink corals to CITES didn't garner the required two-thirds majority vote -- a total of 59 countries voted against it. 

It's important to understand that trade in red and pink corals is a multi-million industry, and countries like Japan and Italy are staunchly opposed to proposed regulations as the industry thrives in these places.

A statue carved from precious red coral 
"Trade in precious and semi-precious corals, for beads and jewelry, is booming," says Ernie Cooper of WWF-Canada, a conservation group. "Increasingly, all roads lead to China. China is becoming the major hub of trade for these products... Some wholesalers are going through 10,000 strings of coral beads a day." 

Cooper points out that harvesting operations for the jewelry sector are extensive, and even include the use of small submarines equipped with saw-like devices to remove the life form from the ocean. 

Some estimates have suggested that between 30-50 tons of red and pink coral are harvested each year for the jewelry trade -- an alarming amount given that a bush-sized piece can take a few hundred years to grow. 

There is hope, however, that the destruction could be stymied. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently accepting comments for a meeting in 2013 at which it is considering a proposal to add red and pink corals to Appendix II of CITES. If the proposal is made and approved, these corals would be afforded the same level of protection as the stony reef-building corals. 

Corals of all types are fragile animals and already imperiled by myriad threats, ranging from polluted water to climate change to reckless boaters to coastal development. 

FWS says it's still undecided whether to recommend that pink and red corals be added to CITES. But to let the trade of slow-growing precious corals go unchecked is a display of environmental arrogance that we'll soon come to regret. 

A recommendation is the least we could do. 

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