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Coral Remains Unprotected

March 22, 2010

A UN agency shot down a proposal made to monitor the trade of declining stocks of valuable corals just days after nixing a ban on bluefin tuna, a move that has many fearing that the body may not be able to keep a close eye on high-value species.

The Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Doha rejected the proposal despite an 85 percent decline in global harvests of precious red and pink coral since 1980.

Environmentalists condemned the decision, warning that the consequences could be very bad, and perhaps irreversible.

Japan led opposition to the measure, which targeted seven species of coral, ono in the Mediterranean and six in the waters near Japan and Taiwan. Some 24 species that look like the red and pink corals would have been covered to prevent accidental harvesting.

North African countries with coral industries joined in the “no” vote, arguing that a listing by CITES Appendix II — mandating exports and scientific monitoring — would damage business and revenue.

“It will have serious negative repercussions. Coral generates 5,000 jobs in our country, and one million dollars every year,” a delegate from Tunisia told the AFP news agency, calling for a secret vote.

The proposal needed a two-thirds majority vote to pass, but the 133 countries that cast ballots were evenly split on the decision.

Delegates from the United States and the European Union argued that over-exploitation was responsible for declining populations, and that global oversight is needed to prevent the species from slipping beyond the point of viability.

As much as 55 tons of pink and red coral are harvested annually from the Mediterranean and the Pacific, most of which is made into jewelry in Italy.

Kristian Teleki, a marine biologist at conservation group Sea Web, told AFP that thinking in terms of cautionary principle was needed. “The harvesting is happening at such a rate, it is simply not sustainable when you look at the ecology of these organisms.” Current practices in the industry should be more accurately coined as “coral mining” than fishing, he added.

Coral takes 100 years to reach maturity, but reef beds are often exploited beyond the capacity to reproduce within a few years. Unable to find enough coral from the Mediterranean, coral hunters now get nearly 80 percent of their raw material from Taiwan, Japan, and other Pacific sources, according to a 2004 census.

“The unregulated and virtually unmanaged collection and trade of these 31 species is driving them to extinction. Today’s decision sets a terrible precedent,” said David Allison of Washington-based Oceana.

A proposal almost identical to the one yesterday came before CITES three years ago during its last meeting. At that time, the proposal was initially approved, but then was overturned during the final minutes of the 12-day meeting by a secret vote.

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