Rising Sea Temperatures and Water Pollution Caused Widespread Bleaching and Loss of Reefs Worldwide – How to Promote Trade While Protecting Marine Species

Human Wrongs Watch

Data highlights species at risk and helps manage trade demands


Colourful coral colonies make up some of the earth’s most diverse ecosystems. ©Gregory Piper/Coral Reef Image Bank

2 February 2021 (FAO)* — Coral is one of the treasures of the sea, whether it’s illuminating the shallow tropical waters of the Caribbean or hidden in the darker depths of the Pacific Ocean.

Its beauty has not gone unnoticed, however, and coral is often sought after to decorate small and large aquariums, create elegant jewellery and produce medicines. Millions of these highly-prized marine polyps are extracted and sold around the world every year.

Few people realise that coral reefs are actually living organisms. Corals may look like plants, but they are in fact animals. Clustered together in colourful colonies, they use the stinging cells of their tiny tentacles to catch plankton and even small fish. These reefs form some of the earth’s most diverse ecosystems. But many of our coral species are under threat.

Rising sea temperatures and water pollution have caused the widespread bleaching and loss of reefs worldwide. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is one notable example.

“Coral reefs, as well as the fish that inhabit them, are a fundamental building block of tropical coastal systems, but they are under pressure from greenhouse gas pollution that is increasing water temperatures to the point where corals are dying,” said Kim Friedman, Senior Fisheries Resources Officer at FAO.

“This threatens not only these wonderful systems, but also the food and livelihoods of many people who depend on them.”

Many coral species are at risk because of rising sea temperatures, pollution and illegal trade. The photo on the left shows a healthy coral reef while the one on the right shows a bleached coral. Top: ©D. Nicholson. Bottom: ©T. Holmes

Trade is a lifeline

Trade in fish and other marine species, like corals, is critical for the lives and livelihoods of many communities, and demand has increased in recent decades. But global distribution is uneven, and overfishing and illegal trade are putting species at risk.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES, was conceived to survey and control the trade ofplant and animal species facing extinction.

CITES came into force in 1975 and has been adopted by 183 countries. The treaty aims to ensure that international trade in animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Its mechanisms and provisions are designed to ensure that trade is legal, sustainable and traceable. Every three years, countries that are parties to the agreement consider changes to the CITES list .

“CITES is important because we need all hands on deck when it comes to protecting our natural marine environments and the social systems that depend on them,” says Friedman.

FAO, together with the United Nations Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre, has released CITES and the Sea to reveal just how critical a role trade can play in the survival of a species.

And it is not just coral. In spite of their reputation as fearsome killers, some shark species are also threatened. According to the CITES report, 44 637 individual sharks, despite being on the CITES list, were killed and traded for their fins and meat between 2007-2016.

European eels, seahorses, wrasses, giant clams and queen conch sea snails are also endangered. Their inclusion on CITES lists highlights the need for countries to better manage these species through recovery plans or other action.

The CITES treaty aims to safeguard species in danger by helping countries better manage the trade of precious marine resources. ©Phillip Hamilton/ Coral Reef Image Bank

Traditionally fisheries have concentrated on stock management – the fish in the water and their capture.  But to successfully manage marine species, we have to look across the ecosystem and the value chain from how fish are caught, handled and processed to how consumers receive their fish products.

FAO provides technical expertise on the status of marine species and advice on the conservation benefits that come from using the CITES provisions. This means policymakers can be better informed about managing their fishing sector to ensure future sustainability.

“FAO is helping countries make the right decisions so they can have better outcomes for fishers,  markets and their communities as a whole,” says Friedman. “It’s important for the entire ecosystem to achieve sustainability, and consumers will benefit by having more fish products available over the long-term.”

Information gathering is critical

CITES enables countries to share records of marine wildlife trade, but countries need to actively participate. FAO helps governments and fishers alike to fully understand the implications of trade on marine species.

Friedman states, “It is not just about collecting data, it is about making communities aware. We have to make sure the fishermen on the water understand what international treaties like CITES require.”

Once a species is listed by CITES, FAO helps countries to raise awareness by encouraging the fisheries sector and government ministries to work together.

“There are aims for sustainable use of fish, and there are aims for biodiversity protection and they are not mutually exclusive,” concludes Friedman.

“We have to cooperate if we are to have productive and sustainable oceans in the future — and FAO will play a significant role in making that a reality.”

Learn more


2021 Human Wrongs Watch

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