Farming to the Rescue Again: This time for Coral Reefs
Property rights matter. When the only way to establish ownership of coral is by pulling it from the ocean floor, then the private coral trade will continue to deplete coral reefs around the world.
This is the tragedy of the commons played out undersea. Don Leal discusses the tragedy of the commons for ocean fisheries in this 2010 PERC Report article.
Nearly twenty-five years have elapsed since the United States government extended federal control over ocean fishing from 12 miles to 200 miles from its shores, primarily to eliminate foreign fishing pressure on declining fish stocks. Unfortunately, federal control has not eliminated overfishing.
A 1999 report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service listed 98 species as overfished’that is, experiencing fewer or smaller fish each year because of too much fishing’with another five species approaching an overfished condition. For 674 species, or 75 percent of all species it assessed, the agency does not know if they are overfished or not (NMFS 1999).
Ocean fisheries provide the classic case of the ‘tragedy of the commons,' in which lack of ownership of jointly exploited fish stocks often leads to depletion of the stocks.(2)
Privately-owned fish farms don’t solve the problem of federally mismanaged ocean fisheries (between 12 miles and 200 miles offshore). But fish farms in coastal waters and also from newer inland aquaculture operations (discussed in this May, 2013 NPR blog post), produce a lot of fish that serve as substitutes for fish caught in the open oceans.
The story seems similar for international coral markets, according to this NYT Green blog post. Live coral from aquariums comes mostly from Indonesia, “the world’s largest supplier of stony corals and home to more coral reef areas than any other nation.” And the shift from wild coral harvesting to coral farming there is good news.
This shift suggests that, contrary to the conventional view that the live coral trade is a threat to coral reef ecosystems, the buying and selling of corals could help create a powerful incentive for protecting reefs in many small island communities, these scientists say.
This expanding success story for private coral farming may be stopped in its tracks by misguided federal government policy:
Dr. Rhyne and his colleagues describe coral farming in small island communities as a potential tool for conservation at the local level. But it’s a tool they worry “is at risk of being lost due to the well-intended but rigid rules of the E.S.A.”
If the EPA lists coral species raised on farms as endangered, imports would be outlawed and Indonesian coral farms likely bankrupted.
Commercial trade in stony and reef-building corals has been regulated under the international treaty known as Cites, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, for nearly 30 years.
The article describes the farming process and how high prices lead coral farmers to expand production without harming wild populations.
And coral reefs can apparently recover rapidly from bleaching and damage from other causes, and this April, 2013 article and study note: “Remote reefs can be tougher than they look”