As if there weren’t enough problems facing the global coral sector following the ongoing crises regarding Fijian and Indonesian corals, the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Scientific Review Group (SRG) has now turned its attention to Australian corals.
It is considering if trade in several LPS (large polyp species) is detrimental to their continued survival in the wild. Currently, three species of Euphyllia, E. glabrescens, E. ancora and E. paraancora, along with species from two other genera, Duncanopsammia (D. axifuga) and Catalaphyllia (C. jardinei), are under the microscope. If the EU SRG concludes that trade in wild-harvested specimens of these species is not sustainable, it could restrict their import into Europe or even ban it.
The decision regarding which way to go will rest with the individual member states and, although the U.K. is no longer a member of the EU, it will follow any European decision taken. The final outcome, though, will probably not be known until the next CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP), the date of which is to be confirmed. As I write, discussions are underway, and the SRG decision will probably be announced in March.
In the meantime, the SRG has requested that the Australian authorities submit data showing that collection of the species in question is not detrimental to their ongoing survival in the wild. Should the group conclude that the data submitted indicate that collection is not sustainable and decide to restrict or close down harvesting and export, this will, obviously, have disastrous consequences for the Australian coral export trade as well as for all those EU importers for whom Australian corals form an important part of their business. It will also deprive hobbyists around the world from being able to obtain specimens of these popular and striking species for their aquaria.
If we were talking of SPS (small polyp species) corals, like the many Acropora species that adorn our aquaria, the situation would be quite different, as SPS corals can be easily propagated by micro or macro fragmentation. Therefore, producing significant quantities of mari-cultured SPS corals is not a problem. Indeed, many of today’s aquarium SPS corals are cultured rather than harvested from the wild.
On the other hand, large-polyp species are difficult to fragment, as a result of which, their mari-culture is much more challenging, so much so that some form of mechanism consisting of trained personnel or officials would need to be set up within the EU to ascertain whether LPS corals being imported are mari-cultured or collected from the wild. Presumably, such personnel would be based at border inspection posts (BIPs), but this point has not, as far as I can ascertain, been considered yet. Nonetheless, it is believed that, should such a mechanism be established, any coral whose origin as a cultured specimen cannot be proven via appropriate certification would be deemed to be wild harvested and would then be subjected to the restrictions or bans imposed by the EU member state through which the import is being made.
Quite naturally, Ornamental Fish International (OFI) is in consultation with the CITES authorities in Australia as well as several Australian exporters regarding this vitally important matter. So far, we know little about the outcome of these discussions but can say that, as of today, no conclusive decision has been taken and, thus, exports can continue as normal, pending both the overall EU CITES decision as well as that of the individual EU member states with whom the final say regarding whether or not to issue import permits rests (should findings lead the SRG to conclude that trade is unsustainable).
The U.K.’s Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association (OATA) is also involved in the ongoing discussions. The online reef website Reef Builders (reefbuilders.com) quotes Dominic Whitmee, the organization’s chief executive, thus: “Ornamental Fish International (OFI) has been coordinating information on this. OATA has offered assistance and is working with the EPO [European Pet Organisation] to get a better understanding of the issues. At the moment we have insufficient information to make a judgment on the status of these species. The UK’s Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is no longer engaged with the EU decision-making process but have stated they will follow SRG decisions, for the time being at least.”
So, as things stand, we are in a bit of a limbo, awaiting submissions and decisions from the various parties. Although, as mentioned above, it is hoped that a decision will be arrived at by the SRG this month, my feeling is that it will take considerably longer than this, not just for the information requested by the SRG to be submitted, but for it to be assessed and decided upon.
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 trade show that took place June 2017 in Singapore.