Illegal Trade Threatens Coral Reefs

Illegal Trade Threatens Coral ReefsIllegal Trade Threatens Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are colorful underwater forests teeming with marine life and act as natural protective barriers for coastal regions. Coral reef ecosystems provide livelihoods such as fishing, aquaculture and tourism, for communities around the reef areas.

Iran is home to 8 percent of the world’s coral reefs with more than 150 different species identified in the Persian Gulf. Coral reefs are found in the waters of the Persian Gulf Islands - Khark, Lavan, Hendurabi, Farur, Bani Farur, Qeshm, Kish, Lark, Hengam and Hormoz, reports Iran newspaper.

Yet, the Persian Gulf coral reefs are declining due to increasing threats primarily from oil spills, rise in sea temperature, pollution from sewage and agriculture inflows, and deposit of fine terrigenous sediment in seawaters. Add to this the greedy coral traders who illegally hunt for exotic fishes and coral reefs from the waters and sell them to aquarium hobbyists at cheap prices. In aquarium tanks, most wildlife die within weeks or months from stress-related disease, cramped or failed environments, or from improper food.

Mohammadreza Ali Moradi, head of Marine Affairs at the Department of Environment (DOE) Sistan and Baluchestan Province, estimates the economic value of one cubic meter of coral reefs, weighing around 50 kilograms as $5000 per kilogram. This is while illegal coral traders sell each kilogram of coral reefs to aquariums at less than $4 per kilogram.

 Rainforests of Sea

Coral reefs are the most diverse of all marine ecosystems. They teem with life, with perhaps one quarter of all ocean species depending on reefs for food and shelter. This is a remarkable statistic when considering that reefs cover just a tiny fraction (less than one percent) of the earth’s surface and less than two percent of the ocean bottom. Because they are so diverse, coral reefs are often called the rainforests of the sea.

The US Smithsonian Ocean Portal says the value of coral reefs has been estimated at $30 billion;  and perhaps as much as $ 172 billion each year, providing food, protection of shorelines, jobs based on tourism, and even medicines.  Unfortunately, people also pose the greatest threat to coral reefs. Overfishing and destructive fishing, pollution, warming, changing ocean chemistry, and invasive species are all taking a huge toll. In some places, reefs have been entirely destroyed, and in many places reefs today are a pale shadow of what they once were.

The demise of coral reefs also affects the entire ocean ecosystem since the coral reefs are home to a multitude of different types of fishes and invertebrates. Degrading coral reefs compel small fishes and organisms to migrate due to lack of suitable habitat for laying their eggs thus endangering marine animals in the higher levels of the food chain.

 Inadequate Supervision

Pointing to lack of proper supervision of the marine ecosystem in Iran, former marine environment deputy at the DOE, Mohammad Bagher Nabavi regretted that some algae species are smuggled to Persian Gulf Arab countries to be used in food, medicines and cosmetic products. He also cited unregulated construction in the coastal zones and islands as the cause for many environmental hazards and called for strict action by authorities to “prevent coral trafficking and destruction of the ecosystem.”  

Apart from the threat to the ecological balance of Iran’s southern islands, industrial sewage and chemical wastes flow into the Persian Gulf and increased levels of minerals  such as phosphate and nitrate has led to the excessive growth of toxic algae, endangering the life of small fishes and invertebrates and further disturbing the marine ecosystem.

More than 500 million people around the world directly or indirectly depend on the coral reefs for their livelihood. Inadequate conservation strategies can cause irreparable harm to the coral reefs with the possibility of their disappearance in the next 10-20 years. Only with effective leadership and management, healthy, resilient reef ecosystems will be able to provide valuable services to the present and future generations. Coastal protection, aesthetic and cultural values can also help protect the coral reefs.