Thursday, 30 April 2015

Letter to the Editor: Trading In Coral Reef Products Will Cause Irreparable Harm


It is with alarm that Malaysians learned of the Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industries' plan to increase the export of coral reefs (Bernama News, April 24, 2015). The fact that there is "high interest abroad" for Malaysian coral reef is all the more reason for us to protect our coral reefs against poaching, plundering and destruction. The very suggestion that the Ministry wishes to exploit and trade in our local coral reefs for profit is tantamount to a breach of duty by those tasked with the responsibility of protecting our marine resources. 

It has often been said that coral reefs are the rainforests of the oceans. Coral reefs cover less than 0.1% of the Earth's surface, yet over 25% of all marine life exists in coral ecosystems. Coral reefs provide a variety of ecosystem services, including as a nursery ground and source of food and shelter to fish and invertebrates. Coral reefs also act as natural wave breakers that protect coasts from wave erosion. 

From an anthropocentric and economic point of view, coral reefs have more value intact than degraded and destroyed for trade. Scientific estimates put the value of coral reefs at USD115,740 per hectare annually. This means that Malaysia’s coral reefs, with a cover of approximately 4,000 square kilometres, would be valued at RM145 billion per year. Coral reefs form the foundation of a significant percentage of Malaysia’s tourism industry and are a more sustainable source of income for locals if protected and kept intact, than if traded and exported. 

 Properly-managed coral reefs can yield an average of 15 tonnes of fish and other seafood per square kilometre each year. It is estimated that coral reef-related businesses in Malaysia, namely, food, fisheries, tourism and pharmaceuticals, is worth approximately USD365 million annually. 

A World Resources Institute report in 2012 found that over 85% of the coral reefs in the ‘Coral Triangle’ (which includes Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines) are threatened by both natural phenomena and human activity. This is substantially more than the global average of 60%. 

According to Reef Check Malaysia, coastal development, destructive fishing practices, overexploitation of resources for fishing, increasing coastal populations, poor land use practices, runoff of pollutants, sediments, disease outbreaks associated with poor water quality and pollutants, coral bleaching associated with rising sea temperatures and the destruction of coastal mangrove forests have caused grave degradation and damage to our coral reefs. 

Just because Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam control most of the world's coral reef exports does not mean that this is a race Malaysia has to participate in. It would be foolhardy and naive to believe that once trade in coral reefs and organisms is opened up, it could be efficiently and adequately regulated and monitored. Malaysia already has a global reputation as a hub for the illegal wildlife trade. Opening up trade in corals would only reinforce this reputation. 

With so much effort being poured into protecting coral reefs and banning or restricting the sale of corals by the international conservation community, exporting and trading in corals would only fuel demand, both for legally farmed and illegally harvested corals. DNA markers can only be used to trace where the corals originate from if there is sufficient documented data. This requires a lot of work and research funds. A successful coral farm would first have to be established and a database created for all cultured coral, and all such corals can then be certified farmed and sustainable. However, the question that remains is whether the importers and purchasers care enough to implement such measures and seek certification. This technology is expensive, not easily available and not a legal requirement by most importing and exporting countries. It stands to reason that those in the aquarium trade would not voluntarily opt to have the DNA testing performed. Most of the people in Southeast Asia who harvest corals are the poor in coastal communities who do not have the capital or knowledge to set up a sustainable coral farm, while those who purchase corals from the poor are unlikely to be concerned about sustainability. 

Like many concerned Malaysians, I would like to know if a feasibility study has been conducted on this coral farming and exporting venture. Coral farming is often a difficult, long and unsuccessful process, and it could take decades before there is any return on investment. The rate of coral growth depends on the species. Even acropora coral, which is recognised to be a fast-growing species, grows at most only one inch a year. Coral breeding has proven unsuccessful in many countries and most corals would not grow on artificial reefs. In order to start a coral farming programme, one still has to break off live coral to use as starters, and this causes damage to existing reefs and marine ecosystems.  

The claims that coral farming is profitable and sustainable are usually made only by those involved in the coral trade, rarely ever by conservation groups and scientific bodies. It is almost impossible to succeed in the coral trade by coral farming alone, and most traders end up harvesting and poaching corals from the wild to satisfy consumer demand. A significant percentage of the corals used in the aquarium trade are inaccurately passed off as farmed or sustainably harvested. 

It seems strange that the Malaysian government, which has expressed its fears that foreign researchers would conduct bioprospecting on and patent Malaysia’s natural resources, would want to leave our corals vulnerable to the same by exporting them and opening the doors wide to bioprospectors. There is a very real risk that once our corals are freely traded and available all over the world, bioprospectors would develop and commercialise products based on our corals and we would lose the intellectual property rights to the same. 

Enforcement-wise, the weak knowledge of our customs officers of corals and the lack of political will means that regulation and enforcement exists only on paper. There are too many loopholes in our laws, and based on observation of the current state of Malaysian coral reefs and the wildlife trade, our customs and enforcement agencies are not prepared for the duty of protecting coral reefs from overharvesting and exploitation. 

The coral reef and aquarium trade appears superficially lucrative, but it remains unclear what economic benefit flows to the exporting country. In Fiji, the economic benefits of the coral and aquarium fish trades were limited to a few villages, while the rest of the local fishing community suffered losses due to the decline in fisheries. Mozambique had to finally impose a complete ban on the export of coral and coral fishes in 1999 due to the destruction wreaked on coral reefs, despite the existence of a licensing and enforcement system. Caribbean coral reefs are now in danger of disappearing altogether within the next 20 years due to overfishing, pollution and fish and coral trade and exports. 

It is not too late for the Malaysian government to reconsider this project, which has unclear beneficiaries and which would lead to irreparable damage to marine ecosystems. Instead of spending RM2.7 million of taxpayers' money on such a dubious venture, the government should instead invest in gazetting more sensitive and biologically-diverse marine areas and improving the current management of reefs and marine parks. 


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