Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thoughts on Wild Coral Export!

Hello everyone. For today, let’s talk a little about the serious issue of wild coral export. Obviously seeing tons of corals in my pictures at the suppliers has amplified the serious concern of over harvesting corals from our reefs. “What are we doing to our reefs?” as one reader has put it. So let’s talk about the coral cites process and the quota the government has allocated to be harvested and exported. Then we will discuss the pros and cons of the wild coral trade and how it impacts the industry and you and me. Please take the time to read all of what I have written, as it did take me many days to think it out. Thanks.

I also would like to thank those that responded and helped me to make my pictures look more natural from the last post. The tips really panned out. Check out the same pictures from the last post below with the white balance adjustment to take out the blue hue.

Also the fourth part of my Coral Adventures aquaculture hunting series in Northern Bali has just been posted on www.thereeftank forum. You can go check it out at this link.

Back some decades ago, a survey was done to assess the coral population in Indonesian reefs for the wild coral export trade. CITES , an international watch group that sets guidelines for the trade of wild endangered species of animals and plant life, determined that certain species corals in certain numbers can be harvested and exported from Indonesian reefs. We know now that there were serious flaws in the system that was created many years ago. I’m sure it has changed over the years to suit more of the greedy exporter’s interests than anything else. One obvious problem that I saw when I got here was that the coral species on the CITES document was wrongly misidentified, and thus the exporters were exporting wrong species! The fish and wildlife has wised up to the errors and have been confiscating, causing lots of headaches for both the exporter and the importer. I don’t blame the FW, as they are only doing their jobs.

Here is the allocation. The actual number on the CITES quota is a huge one. I can’t print on my blog, because as usual, I will get repercussions from the other jealous greedy exporters for doing or saying something right. But you can send me a private e-mail and I can tell you. Anyways, so this huge number of CITES quota is shared between 23 exporters. Sorry to say that one big bully controls majority of the quota. And basically if you want to get your own cites company, the quota will have to come from the 23 guys. So yah, you have a better chance at winning lottery than getting your own cites company. Of course you can always buy one, our parent company was up for sale at a cool 3/4 of a million dollars last year!

There has been talk of shutting down the wild coral trade from Indonesia for a long time. The rumor has it that the association (23 exporters) have asked the government and CITES International for another ten year extension. Personally I think the export of wild corals will always be around, as the big boys will make sure of it. Some of these guys make millions, and I’m not talking Indonesian Rupiahs! With that much money at stake, they will do whatever is necessary from loosing their income.

But the pressure is on for the exporters to perform. For example, a few years ago, the aquaculture project was put into the system. The idea was to alleviate some of the pressure of wild collection and build the reefs back up. The problem is that the initial craziness and demand for Indonesian aquaculture has died down over the past few years. So now there are literally zillions of corals (mostly acros and montis) growing on the farmer’s racks, growing to be small tree sizes! The government has caught onto what is happening and have been cutting down the wild acropora and montipora quotas. No use collecting wild pieces and exporting when they have tons of aquaculture standing by. Some of the exporters actually export the aquaculture under the wild cites for these corals, as these are more readily available and cheaper. Eventually I believe the wild quota for the two sps’s species will be cut out.

On a good note, the issue of conservation has been a topic for a while. The government came up with a plan recently requiring all the coral exporters and even suppliers on the islands to start aquaculture projects. This is one way to put back what we have taken. It sounds good but for some it just doesn’t make sense. For the exporters, they will have to start selling aquacultures (if they don’t already). At least they can make money by selling the corals as maintaining the racks and having people to do the work all cost money. But for the poor suppliers on the islands, they have no way of selling. A big flaw that was not well thought of and I’m sure someone will have to change the guidelines.

People (usually newbie hobbyists) ask, “why they don’t do more aquaculturing, that is the way to go and I only buy aquaculture”. Bottom line friends, only a few coral species can be fragged and grown out and sold as aquaculture. The corals must grow fast enough for the parent colony to recover. Only a few of the sps’s and lps’s can qualify. As lame as it sounds, even solitary corals like trachyphyllias were once proposed as part of the aquaculture project. Of course, CITES did not authorize and the idea was shut down. From time to time, authorities come to Indonesia to inspect the projects in the islands.

While on the topic of aquaculture, let’s have a look at the false notion that keeping frags and promoting frags, even captive grown frags are deterring wild coral collection. The idea is good but again is flawed. Here is a typical example. A nice wild echino soon to be the “new watermelon chalice” is collected from the wild. It is sent to a wholesaler in the US. The coral gets picked up by a smart guy that specializes in fragging. He knows the value of this coral. I don’t blame the guy, to make money, I would do the same. So he cuts up the precious colony into many parts. Even glues them on a plug and let’s them heal. Then he smartly calls it a special name and starts to market it. The demand skyrockets. He is finally left with one piece to grow out. But he is still getting huge demand. The price starts to climb on this precious little thing. The frags become from an inch to three quarters, to half of an inch! The guy feeds the coral everyday and keeps it under pristine conditions hoping that it grows faster. The other guys who have bought the coral are doing the same thing. If the coral can grow fast enough to supply the demand, yes it can be kept internal. Unfortunately coral do not grow as fast we would like, so the pressure eventually mounts to the collector side – me! The lucky guy who found the precious piece originally goes back to the wholesaler and waits for the “wild coral” shipment to arrive every week. Heck, he even camps out and helps open up the boxes in hoping to find another piece or perhaps a new morph or coral that he can market again and make 100,000% profit! Of course this is not to mention his famous name that is being developed because of the precious chalice. Pictures are sent to overseas for that coral to be found, to me. Of course I say you and hundred other people are looking for this coral from the wild! They will pay whatever for it and will go any lengths to get it. The fishermen don’t really know so they will get whatever they find. If you are lucky one will be there and it could be a 15 inch monster. I’ve sent out such pieces (not the watermelon but another killer piece) and of course it got fragged. And for course I sent it for that such purpose because my customer had requested it, because his customer had requested it. And the demand eventually came from the hobbyists, trying to collect all the nicest pieces. Are you guys getting my point? The demand for zoos and palys are even worse. With all the crazy names out there being marketed under, and the demand skyrocketing, right now I export on the average of 150-200 of these at a time on a shipment.

I get pictures all the time from potential customers looking for the LE or the very unique pieces. They all know that all of the highly sought after pieces come from the wild originally. They may look a little different, but can still tell. Another example is my Montipora undata (true undata) that Steve Tyree made famous. After my undata (from the wild) got released, more undatas like it started to appear on the market as wild colonies! Of course it got fragged right away so no one really knew. When it was sitting in my tank, there was no demand. It just gave me and my customers lots of pleasure looking at it. Once it was released to the public in frags (smart marketing by Steve), the demand skyrocketed.

Even about four years ago, when I went to Tonga, corals like echinophyllia chalice were not that high in demand. I used to send out beautiful large broken pieces because that is all I can find. So basically I was shipping out extra large frags of the chalice. One of these ended up being named “bubble gum” by an online guy. But my customers used to complain to me about the broken pieces of chalice, saying his customers are wanting complete wild pieces, not broken up pieces. Now days, it doesn’t matter, as it will get fragged up anyway. The demand for this coral is so high right now, that it is my number one request. Why, again because of smart marketing through fragging, the demand for this coral has skyrocketed. It is not just me getting the demand, every other exporter and their mother is looking for the same thing! So again the pressure is on for wild specimens. Another interesting thing has happened because of the frag craze is the demand for larger pieces from the wild. Before in my Tonga days, small to medium sized pieces were hot, large ones nobody wanted. Now days, it is different, I have more demand for larger pieces than ever.

The only way that coral can sustain itself in the hobby through captive breeding, (and put less stress on wild specimens) is for the demand to die down so the coral has a chance to catch up. One example of this is the Cali tort. Years ago, this was one of the holy grails in sps. Through the fragging process, it ended up in the hands of many hobbyists. We grew them out and traded them and sold them and gave them away. I still see them online and the price is still quite high. But I don’t get requests about wild colonies anymore, like I used to when I went to Tonga. Things have died down for this coral, but I guarantee you if I have a nice colony to send, for sure it would get chopped up still. Even the precious watermelon chalice can catch up to the demand eventually, but for now, it is putting a pressure on wild pieces. The only way it can be done is to aquaculture in the wild where the corals can grow at a much faster rate. Even then, it would still take a long time. The problem is the cites process and of course the real threat of getting those precious pieces stolen by greedy competitors!

I like frags, don’t get me wrong, and I would sell lots of it if I ever get back into retailing. Frags will survive much better than wild colonies. The profit margin is astronomical and good for the reef keeping business. It also assures that your precious piece will still be out there and get it back if your original piece dies. I am happy to see my undata pieces still floating out there. I don’t have my piece anymore but feel good that one day I can get it back. I love the concept that Tyree and his partner has put together. These farmer’s market shows, where people can buy, trade, and sell small frags and such is a perfect example of how the hobby is evolving.

Because us hobbyists don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes, we make these false assumptions. In the years to come, more and more of these “watermelon” types will be discovered and marketed, thus again putting more pressure on wild specimens. I hate to say it but, without the wild pieces coming in, no new discoveries will be made – taking out the future “wow” factor. There is nothing negative about fragging and is mostly all positive. My only “beef” is for those people that talk trash about wild collection and claim “that is why I only keep frags and should only buy or trade from fellow reefers”. If you are a tree hugger, then you should not be doing the reef thing!

So let’s have a look at the pros and cons of wild coral export.


Here are some positive things about the wild coral trade. The trade gives the very poor fishermen something to make a living. It would also affect the exporters, as many of them solely rely on coral export for a living. Only some bigger players actually do fish as well. Our parent company would certainly shut down and all the employees would be out of work – something to think about considering almost all of them have been with the company for nearly 20 years. I would also be out of work, which means my customers with the great corals would also be out of business. Which translates to hobbyists to never see any choice wild corals again. Wild coral export also keeps the airlines happy and of course the employees that work for them in Indonesia. I’ve read that International airlines make their margin on cargo. The passengers pay operating costs but it is cargo that makes the profits. I read that in a magazine once while traveling back to the US. Also wild corals give wholesalers and distributors something else to sell besides fish. Bottom line, there is a whole chain of people that rely on the wild coral trade for a living.


What would happen if wild coral trade was to shut down? Here is what I foresee. First, the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of poor fishermen that rely on the trade to make a living would be out of a job. These people make enough to feed their kids and families on a daily basis by collecting coral. From fishermen to exporter, it would have a huge impact by the loss of jobs. It is easy for us to sit in our big offices in the US sipping $5 Starbucks coffee and pass judgment onto the people who are dealing with corals on the supply end. It is easy to say “what are we doing to our reefs”? The fact of the matter is, it is not our reefs, well it is and it isn’t. It is our reefs because as we as whole is responsible for preserving our environment, yes. But it is not our reefs, because we don’t live there, it is the poor fishermen’s reefs. It is their home that they make a living from. If I got lost on the island with my family and all I could do was to collect coral so we can eat, heck I would be taking everything before somebody else does. Save the reefs or save your family? Conservation or starvation?, take your pick.

Traveling and working with the locals really have opened up my eyes to the reality of things. My only game plan is to train the fishermen what coral is sellable and leave the rest behind. But this concept is really hard to implement as the fishermen are not under my control. In Tonga, it was easy. Follow my rules or you are out. It took a long time in training the divers what good coral was, but it all paid off. Instead of the norm 10 bins of junk coral with only 10% good, we were coming back with 100% good with only 5 bins. In a reef, typically only a small percentage of the corals are really nice, the rest being too big or too brown or too green or something. The system is set in place in Indonesia and it is really hard to change things. I did however manage to isolate some really cool corals and now have become popular. I also have managed to discourage a few species as un sellable and see a huge reduction after collection

Besides a bunch of people would be out of jobs, the halt of wild coral export would have a huge negative impact on the industry. Here are some of my thoughts. First, we have to look at what drives the reef keeping hobby. When I had my retail shop, I knew the key to selling new setups to new customers was beautiful display tanks. Without these, there would be no enthusiasm, no motivation, no wanting to spend money. Many newbies (new reefers) coming into the hobby are impulse buyers. They don’t plan on spending $10,000 on a new reef setup but can’t help it when they see the beautiful display. The trick is to get them to visualize how it would look in their homes. Of course, my tanks were filled with big beautiful WILD corals. Long polyp stony corals waving against the current under beautiful lighting was the ticket. Of course the fish also helped too. My point here is that newbies aren’t interested in little one inch frags. That comes later when they have advanced. These new comers are looking for instant gratification. Can you imagine without wild corals, how are you going to convince the customer to buy a setup?

“Yes the equipment will cost you $10,000 but you can’t have the corals, because those are wild and no more wild corals are available”. “But instead you can have these one inch frags and grow them up and maybe in five years, they will grow to that size”. But of course you can’t have any of those stony corals swaying in the current because the aquaculture rate is just too slow and there are not enough to go around”. “But if you get on a waiting list, I’m sure I can get you a starter piece”. Yah, that is really going to fly! The new potential reefer will be discouraged and go spend the money on a new set of golf clubs! Are you guys getting my point?

So without the new reefers coming into the hobby, the industry will suffer greatly. From lighting companies to tank manufactures to coral food makers, you name it, business will tank like a rock. And remember most advanced hobbyists started as newcomers. A particular area of the industry that will suffer is the service business. Maintaining aquariums have been my backbone for many years. For ten years, I ran the largest custom design and maintenance company in the SF area. Can you imagine me bringing a little frag for their monster tank and telling the customer there are no more wild corals. But in a few years, the corals will grow and look nice. Folks, these are professional people that are not really hobbyists, they couldn’t care less about a one inch “watermelon” chalice. What they want is big beautiful corals that makes their $30,000 investment worth while. But heck I can always try convincing them to keep only fish.

If you are involved or have been involved in the service sector, you will understand what I’m talking about.

So without the new reefers coming into the hobby, the industry will suffer greatly. From lighting companies to tank manufactures to coral food makers, you name it, business will tank like a rock. And remember most advanced hobbyists started as newcomers. A particular area of the industry that will suffer is the service business. Maintaining aquariums have been my backbone for many years. For ten years, I ran the largest custom design and maintenance company in the SF area. Can you imagine me bringing a little frag for their monster tank and telling the customer there are no more wild corals. But in a few years, the corals will grow and look nice. Folks, these are professional people that are not really hobbyists, they couldn’t care less about a one inch “watermelon” chalice. What they want is big beautiful corals that makes their $30,000 investment worth while. But heck I can always try convincing them to keep only fish.

If you are involved or have been involved in the service sector, you will understand what I’m talking about.

Finally, the halt of the wild coral export would hurt the wholesalers and distributors. These businesses rely on corals to leverage out their fish. Corals are a specialty item compare to the bread and butter fish. The corals bring in the customers and at the same time, they buy fish. If the wholesaler doesn’t have coral, it is a disadvantage. Of course this will reflect onto the retailers as well. No wild corals, one less product that they have to make money. And of course, the price of coral in general would skyrocket. That means, the “watermelon” chalice type of corals (or better yet frags), would go up the roof. Even simple green mushrooms would be worth tons of money.

Conclusion and Solution

So let’s sum up what we just talked about. Many simple lives depend on the wild coral trade to make a living. The notion that fragging corals and sharing is helping to deter wild coral collection is not true. In fact, just the opposite is happening because the demand has increased. Majority of the frags offered online are coming from chopped up wild corals. Without wild corals, there will be far less new reefers coming into the hobby, which means lot less tanks, coral food, fish, lights, etc.. being sold. All sectors of the industry will be negatively affected.

So what is the solution? I don’t have a definite one but I do have some suggestions. First we cannot ignore the poverty and circumstances surrounding the fishermen and suppliers. The government here has neither the funding or man power to do training that is necessary to preserve our reefs. My suggestion is that the big aquarium related companies (lighting, tank, skimmer manufacturers and others) join together and start a non profit organization to help educate the locals overseas. With funding and man power, the organization can provide training and material to start aquaculture projects. Give money to the locals to plant corals back into the sea where once they have taken. For every coral taken, one is put back, heck put two back instead. But this is not easy as said, even with lots of money and manpower. There needs to be constant supervision and ongoing training. At the same time, also train the fishermen how to use nets instead of cyanide. This is a big problem here in Indo, more so than the Philippines. This is another topic and quite inspiring as I have an example of a fishing village that came together and stopped the use of cyanide and turned to net catching. I have a video to go with this. I will be doing a write up sometime soon.

There is so much to talk about on this important subject, but I think I will quit now. I welcome any comments or suggestions you have, positive or negative. And please keep in mind that I’m not an analysts or anything, just telling you how I feel about these issues, based on my experiences. Thanks for taking time to read all of my gibberish!



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Eddie, as always a good post. I am going to email you about this ok?

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