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Fiji’s Corals Back in Trade

The year started out rocky for the Fijian live coral and live rock trade, but the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests has righted its wrong.


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This year, the International Year of the Reef, kicked off with a bang for Fiji—a really loud one. To celebrate the launch of this important year, Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, nominated large sections of Fiji’s Great Sea Reef as a Ramsar site to protect it from a range of threats, including industry.

Ramsar, the Convention on Wetlands, is an intergovernmental treaty that “provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.” While most such wetlands are represented by inland waters, i.e., swamps, rivers, etc., the interpretation of the term is so wide that it also takes in coastal habitats, be they mangroves or reefs.

Bainimarama’s decision would seem to have been a reason for widespread rejoicing on the part of those of us who take the conservation of our planet’s natural resources seriously. So, why didn’t we all celebrate?

The main reason for our reservations was that sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Fiji’s Ministry of Fisheries and Forests unexpectedly announced that Fijian live coral and live rock exports were being banned with immediate effect. The industry was, understandably, stunned, not just by the announcement itself, but by the fact that it came without any consultation or forewarning, that it was made during what is the quietest period on the industry’s calendar—when most of us are enjoying a few days’ hard-earned respite with our loved ones—that no “period of grace” had been granted, and that such an important and far-reaching announcement was made via Facebook.

It would have been unfair to have pronounced judgement on these points at the time without the benefit of an open exchange of correspondence or a face-to-face conversation with those responsible for the decision, thus allowing them the courtesy and opportunity to explain themselves, rather than allowing a less-than-complimentary opinion of their actions to spread like wildfire throughout the international ornamental aquatic community. The thing is that when such unilateral actions are taken by authorities, it is easy to accuse those who take them of all manner of wrongdoing. Yet it sometimes turns out that such situations arise not from a desire or an intention to restrict any particular party’s activities, but from a basic and unintended lack of understanding on the part of the legislators regarding some fundamental factors, or an unawareness of the unfortunate and unforeseen consequences of their decisions.

And so it’s turned out to be with regard to this ban. I am therefore happy to report that, as I write these lines, I’ve received news that the Fijian authorities have lifted the ban.

Up to now, we had had very little in the form of clarification from the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests. There had been some sort of explanation for the ban from the fisheries minister, Semi Koroilavesau, but it still left many matters unaddressed and unanswered. According to the minister, “… the ban is based on the idea that a lot of the corals are dying. … Our commitment also means protecting the coral system and maintaining a healthy ocean, and that’s why we are doing it now. … We need to protect our marine resources, and we will stay committed to it.”

This statement was made despite the fact that the largest exporting facility in Fiji, Walt Smith International (WSI), was actually established in 1996 following an invitation from the Ministry of Fisheries itself! This was followed by widespread national and international recognition for WSI’s reef conservation activities, and numerous major awards, including the Fiji Export Council Unique Exporter Award in 2011. Further, the company appears to have received strong support from the ministry’s managers for about 20 years.

Added to this, since 1998, the WSI-inspired/founded Aquaculture Development for the Environment (ADE) Project (adeproject.org) has been funding training and capacity building efforts for local community reef restoration projects. Prominent among these is the replanting of coral reefs with coral frags cultivated for the export market. Interestingly, only a low percentage of the frags cultured for export (about 10 percent) can actually be exported—because they might have grown too large during the period of cultivation, for example—with the remaining 90 percent being replanted on the reef itself. This results in much more coral mass being restored to the wild than was originally removed as small frags for cultivation. So, the trade in corals from Fiji actually results in benefits for its reefs.

Unfortunately, the ban put all of the good work of the past 20 years in jeopardy, and within a few days of the announcement, WSI had to lay off three-quarters of its workforce, which, in turn, would have had other repercussions, probably even leading to the end of the ADE Project and all its conservation benefits for Fiji.

And we are not just talking about conservation benefits either. The fact is that Fiji’s coral/live rock industry generates millions of dollars for the economy, as well as provides jobs for large numbers of locals. The government’s decision, therefore, defied all logic, while the above-quoted pronouncement from the ministry regarding its reasons seemed to lack coherence and sense.

Obviously, WSI did not take the matter lightly. It immediately began holding talks with ministry representatives and invited them to visit WSI’s premises to see for themselves how efficiently and conservation-friendly the operation really is, and how much revenue it generates for the nation’s coffers and its workforce. Quite clearly, WSI’s prompt actions, allied to the support that it received from the industry, including letters to the Fijian authorities from—among others—Dr. Bruce Carlson of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (which, itself, is currently involved in a serious and uncalled-for battle regarding the state’s own fishery), proved fruitful, with the result that the authorities were open-minded enough to accept their unfortunate faux pas and acted immediately to reverse their decision.

They, quite simply, didn’t have all the relevant information at their disposal when they decided to issue the ban. Indeed, they had thought that while they were banning live coral and live rock exports, there was still a viable alternative for the Fijian sector: the export of aquacultured and/or captive-bred equivalents and man-made live rock. This might not sound too unreasonable at first, or to the uninformed, but it is. For a start, cultured corals begin with frags collected from the wild, so this practice would have had to cease. Then, man-made alternatives account for only 20 percent of all export trade. And if this were not enough, we are nowhere near being able to “breed” corals in captivity. So, whichever way we look at it, the Fiji industry would have been dealt a major, unwarranted and potentially terminal blow by the ban.

While live coral and live rock exports have been given the green light once again, we are not out of the woods yet. As you will see from the text of the ministry’s original announcement (See Ministry’s Announcement sidebar), point No. 2 states that live coral and live rock would be given a “zero quota for 2018” under the ban. This, of course, will not be the case now. However, the Fijian Department of the Environment will have to hold a CITES Management Authority (MA) meeting to establish these quotas. We can only hope that, when they do, they don’t commit another major error and end up allocating unworkable quotas that will do little or nothing to restore Fiji’s universally respected and flourishing industry.

Acknowledgement

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Walt Smith (waltsmith.com) for his attentive and valuable responses to my requests for information.

Further Reading

For rapid online reporting on this issue, please consult reef2rainforest.com and search “Flabbergasted in Fiji: Coral & Live Rock Exports in Limbo for 2018.”

John Dawes is an international ornamental aquatic industry consultant. He has written and/or edited more than 50 books and has contributed more than 4,000 articles to hobby, trade and academic publications. He is the editor of the OFI Journal and a consultant to AquaRealm, the new trade show that took place June 2017 in Singapore.

Ministry’s Full Original Announcement

The Ministry of Fisheries has banned all harvesting, purchasing, sales, and export of live coral and aquarium rock (also known as live rock, coral rock or fossil coral) from the 28th of December, 2017. All companies are to adhere to the following:

1. All harvesting, purchasing, and sales of live rocks and live coral are now banned, and no export permits would be processed by the ministry.

2. The Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Scientific Committee (SC) will be submitting to the Management Authority (MA) on 7th of January, 2018 that live coral and live rock is given a zero quota for 2018.

3. The Ministry of Fisheries and both the CITES MA and SC would be supporting the development of other sustainable options, particularly the development of farmed or cultured coral.

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