Events & Media

March 3, 2014

Managing and Conserving Ornamental Coral Reef Wildlife

Many tropical fish and coral species are in high demand. Fish and coral are sold to the aquarium trade, and coral is also sold as jewelry and collectibles. In all, such trade constitutes a multi-million-dollar industry that, without proper conservation management practices, can lead to overharvesting of these organisms, which may threaten coral reef ecosystems.

A new paper authored by Bren PhD student Laura Dee, Stephanie Horii (MESM 2012), and Daniel Thornhill of the nonprofit organization Defenders of Wildlife explores these challenges.

Titled "Conservation and management of ornamental coral reef wildlife: Successes, shortcomings, and future directions" and published in the January 2014 issue of Biological Conservation, the paper reviews coral reef conservation practices in 18 locations ranging from Florida to the Kingdom of Tonga, with the goal of identifying successful management strategies that can be replicated elsewhere.

"Coral reefs are hotspots for biodiversity, and are often located in areas where communities depend on the resources they provide," Dee said. "Overfishing is a threat that can be managed, and if done effectively, harvesting can provide economic benefits to local communities without threatening coral reef species and ecosystems."

But coral reefs are complex to manage. Many traditional fisheries management techniques, such as setting total catch limits or performing stock assessments, often are not feasible for coral reefs. Data is usually limited or unreliable, and fishing is frequently unregulated, underreported, or simply illegal.

The researchers found that 73% of the locations they reviewed had no restrictions on the size of reef fish that could be caught, while 58% had no plan for managing stocks of fish used in the aquarium trade. In addition, only four of the eighteen locations studied had assessed their fishery to determine the amount of fishing that could be sustained over time.

"The research began with my interest in whether these aquarium-trade fisheries could be managed sustainably," Dee said. "I was shocked at how many of these fisheries are unregulated and unmonitored. The impact of the trade on the populations of most of the thousands of species in the trade is unknown and unevaluated."

Fortunately, there are some success stories to highlight. For example, the Big Island of Hawaii, the Maldives, and Australia are all locations where coral reef management or trade strategies have proven effective. In particular, Hawaii regulates which types of fish can be collected and has completely restricted fishing on 35% of the Kona coastline on the Big Island.

The publication is one of several papers intended to identify solutions for sustainability challenges for coral reefs and, in particular, the coral reef wildlife trade. The researchers received a grant from Kingfisher Foundation to allow the paper to be accessed online for free, and have sent it to 81 coral reef managers around the world.

Read the journal article.

Read a blog post summarizing this research on the Defenders of Wildlife website.

Follow Laura Dee on Twitter: @LauraEllenDee