Global Coral Reef Health Depends on Tougher US Laws, Experts Say

fish in blue cone photo

Photo by NOAA via Flickr CC

Conservationists have been calling for stronger laws to protect marine habitats, but it has proven difficult to get them on the books in the first place, let alone enforced. Now, experts are saying that the United States can pick up the slack where international laws are failing to protect coral reefs and tropical fish. Healthy reefs are the cornerstone of healthy marine environments, supporting the vast majority of sealife upon which humans depend for income and protein. By making trade more ecologically sustainable, the US can set the standards and act as an example for other countries with marine habitats needing help. A press release from University of Washington states, "Using data from the United Nation's conservation monitoring program, the [18 expert] authors say trade in coral and coral reef species is substantial and growing, removing 30 million fish and 1.5 million live stony corals a year. The aquarium industry alone targets some 1,500 species of reef fishes. Many die in transit, leading collectors to gather even more animals to compensate for their losses."

But according to the authors -- including experts from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Marine Fisheries Service, Humane Society International, the Pew Environment Group and the Environmental Defense Fund among other groups -- it doesn't need to remain such a damaging industry.

"Our actions have a big impact on what happens in these coral reef ecosystems, which are already hit hard by other forces like global warming, ocean acidification and overfishing," said [Brian] Tissot, lead author and professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at WSU Vancouver.

US buyers make up more than half the trade in live coral, reef fish and invertebrates, which means making headway in the US market for these species can go a long way in sparing reefs globally. According to recent estimates, around $172 billion is at risk of disappearing from the global economy if we allow reefs to die off. But they're getting little protection, even from CITIES which did nothing earlier this year to protect red and pink corals -- they're in danger of going extinct as they become jewelry for tourists, and guess what: the US is the largest purchaser of coral jewelry.

By setting up stricter laws for where the imports come from, how they're harvested, the varieties of species protected, tracking a product's chain of custody, and even creating a certification process that shows the species are collected and sold in humane and sustainable ways, legislation in the US can make significant headway in coral reef conservation.

"The U.S.," say the authors, "should assume its role as an international leader in coral reef conservation and take steps to reform the international trade it drives."

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