An artistic tradition at risk
For hundreds – even thousands – of years, red and pink corals (species of the family known as Coralliidae) have been a key component in jewellery and objets d'art in many cultures, from the Americas, through the Mediterranean, Africa, India, as far as China and Japan. Now, however, this tradition is under threat because of over-harvesting of the corals, driven by demand in international trade.
The ancient Greeks believed that this delicately-branched coral was the petrified blood of the Gorgon, Medusa, who was slain by Perseus. In fact, the branching structures are colonies of tiny animals, known as polyps, set in a hard skeleton of calcium carbonate that is coloured by carotene.
The Romans believed that this coral could protect children from harm, as well as cure snake and scorpion bites, while in Hindu astrology it is associated with the planet Mars.
The town of Torre del Greco, near Naples, Italy, can probably claim to be the leading centre of coral craftsmanship in the world, with several thousand people employed in the industry there.
Sadly, however, they are relying increasingly on coral caught in the Pacific, as the stocks in the Mediterranean have become severely depleted. In the Mediterranean, colonies of Corallium rubrum of up to 50cm in height were once common; however, now more than 90 percent of colonies in fished areas are only 3 to 5cm tall and less than half are sexually mature.
The coral graphic at right helps us to understand what this diminution in size actually means in practical terms. The smaller the colony, the fewer branches it has. Therefore, since each branch is studded with the individual animals, known as polyps, that are the building blocks of the colony (the white dots in the diagram), merely using colony height as the reference point does not give a true picture of the level of decline that has come about. In fact, a reduction of three-quarters in the height of the colony represents a much greater reduction in the overall size, and so number of polyps that it carries. This in turn means that the capacity of colonies to reproduce themselves is seriously weakened - in other words, the coral is being fished out of the Mediterranean much faster than it can replenish itself.
Now there are signs also of depletion of the Pacific stocks. Data in the Pacific shows that the quantities of coral harvested have declined from peak levels of 100-400 tons a year in the late 1980s/ early 1990s to less than five tons currently.
Clearly, red and pink corals are in crisis. What is at stake is not only the loss of one of the beautiful creatures of the ocean, but the end of a long and proud tradition of human craftsmanship - effectively, part of mankind's cultural heritage - unless urgent and effective steps are taken to limit the exploitation of this resource.
Ironically, while international trade in many other coral species is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), that in red and pink coral - arguably the most valuable and widely traded species - remains unregulated. In fact, trade interests have lobbied aggressively and successfully at two recent meetings of the Convention to prevent adoption of measures that would have allowed for such regulation to ensure sustainability and legality of supply.
The only alternative, as WWF is doing with bluefin tuna, is to urge consumers not to buy red and pink coral jewellery until the exploitation and trade of these species is placed on a sustainable footing. Similarly, we need to persuade designers, manufacturers and retailers not to use coral in their products or to sell such products. In doing this, our objective is not to end the manufacture of coral jewellery for good but rather to persuade trade interests to accept international regulation of the trade - so that the tradition can survive in the long term.
WWF has been fortunate in this regard to work with Seaweb, a marine conservation NGO that is at the cutting edge of coral conservation issues. Through its “Too Precious to Wear” campaign, it has successfully persuaded over 50 high profile designers, manufacturers and retailers – including Tiffany and Co. – to cease using red and pink coral.
However, to date, Seaweb’s efforts within its limited resources have focussed on the United States of America. If this campaign is to be effective, we need to widen the scope – at least to Europe and, if possible, to the fashion industry in Asia.
The time has come to “up our game” by signing on additional designers, manufacturers and retailers around the world to the pledge not to use red and pink coral until trade is regulated so that the harvest is brought down to sustainable levels. Only in that way can this unique piece of our natural and cultural heritage be preserved for the future.