Confusion around Fiji announcement to stop live rock and coral exports

The marine ornamental fish industry has suffered another blow with the recent announcement by the Ministry of Fisheries in Fiji to implement a 'zero quota for export of live rock and coral for 2018.' While the move is aimed at protecting the island nations coral reef resources, there is considerable confusion around the announcement, particularly about export of farmed corals. There is also potential massive job losses with one industry member already announcing they will need to shed 75% of their workforce as a result of this change top legislation.

The export of liverock and coral from Fiji is under a massive cloud and it is unclear where the industry is heading after the FIJI Ministry of Fisheries announced via a vague Facebook post that they were banning the collection and export liverock and of corals in Fiji, effective from January 7, 2018. This comes as a major shock to industry as there was no consultation prior to the Facebook post being made, and it even appears that most people in the government were also unaware of this change as well. However, in subsequent announcements it appears that the immediate closure of the fishery is being delayed and exporters will be able to collect and export coral and liverock from permits they have already been issued.

In the past, Fiji has been very supportive of the ornamental fish industry and has a well-managed ornamental fishery with strict licensing, quota and export conditions including CITES permits with many commentators stating that the Fiji industry place making it one of the best managed fisheries in the world for many years.  However, the recent and abrupt changes appear to be driven by concerns around CITES obligations and the recent climate change conference COP23 held in Bonn, Germany earlier in November. The Fiji Ministry states that the changes are needed to meet international obligations and preserve local coral reefs as part of a general decrease of the capture quota.  The Minister indicated that industry should have been aware of this as their quotas were being reduced, yet exporters report they have had no changes to their quotas for at least 4 years and there had been no indication that this would happen from the ministry.

The Fiji Ministry of Fisheries Facebook post is summarised below:

The Ministry of Fisheries has banned all harvesting, purchasing, sales and export of live coral and aquarium rock (also known as live rock, coral rock or fossil coral) from the 28th of December, 2017.
All companies are to adhere to the following:
1. All harvesting, purchasing and sales of live rocks and live coral are now banned, and no export permits would be processed by the ministry.
2. The Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Scientific Committee (SC) will be submitting to the Management Authority (MA) on 7th January 2018 that Live Coral and Live Rock is given a zero quota for 2018.
3. The Ministry of Fisheries and both the CITES MA and SC would be supporting the development of other sustainable options, particularly the development of farmed or cultured coral.

There also seems to be a lot of confusion around the ban and what constitutes farming of corals, with the Minister confirming on 3rd January that “…we will also look at having these companies starting their own coral farms so they can export the coral from their own farms. We will set alternatives for these companies, but if they do their own coral planting and harvest it then they can export it. So this ban will ensure our coral system is protected always.” However, this is not consistent with the initial announcement that there would be a zero quota for exporting coral in 2018. In terms of farming, exporters currently use ‘fragging’ for ‘farming of corals. Fragging is the process of taking small cuttings from a large coral and growing this on an artificial substrate which is then exported. In fact, exporters are required to frag more coral than they export which means they are actually operating in a sustainable way and restoring and adding to reef biomass rather than exploiting and over-harvesting the reef. Approximately 20% of coral exported is sourced from this farming method. It is still unclear whether this will be allowed to continue or if exporters will be required to ‘breed’ corals through sexual propagation, which is very expensive, unreliable and technically not possible for many species – and more importantly likely to be impractical for the Fijian exporters.

OFI supports the sustainable wild harvesting of both freshwater and marine organisms. It needs to be recognised that this industry has a significant impact on the livelihoods of many artisanal fisherman around the world, with many thousands of fisherman deriving an income form the industry. Well managed and sustainable fisheries are recognised as vital tools in the conservation of various habitats around the world. We are concerned for the Fiji industry, particularly in the view of the lack of consultation with industry and the extremely short notice given to industry for this and not allowing any transitional arrangement to reduce the impact to industry and most importantly local employment. It is also concerning that it appears that CITES is being used again to stop the trade in a live commodity – it should be remembered that the idea of CITES is to provide a structure for sustainable trade in species of concern.

This issue is still evolving and it seems that there will be some dialog between industry and ministry to find a pathway to a sustainable industry that supports the hundreds of people currently employed in the industry and meeting the countires international obligations and more importantly a sustaible and vibrant fishery and coral reef ecosystem. 

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