Corals are popular as souvenirs, for home decor and in costume jewelry, yet corals are living animals that eat, grow and reproduce. It takes corals decades or longer to create reef structures, so leave corals and other marine life on the reef.
Corals have long been popular as souvenirs, for home decor, and in jewelry, but many consumers are unaware that these beautiful structures are made by living creatures. Fewer still realize that corals are dying off at alarming rates around the world.
Coral reefs are some of the most biologically rich and economically valuable ecosystems on Earth, but they are increasingly threatened by pollution, invasive species, fishing, disease, bleaching, and global climate change.
Strong consumer demand for coral, heightened over the holiday season, is another factor that is contributing to the decline of coral reefs.
Today, the U.S. annually imports approximately 129 metric tons (142 short tons) of dead coral for home decorations and curios. Most of these corals are shallow-water species.
The U.S. is also the world’s largest documented consumer of Corallium, a red and pink species of coral often used to create jewelry. Finished pieces of jewelry and art crafted from this type of coral can fetch anywhere between $20 and $20,000 in the marketplace.
Coral reefs are made from the calcified skeleton of tiny sea creatures called coral polyps. These skeletons can grow in a wide range of shapes and sizes, including formations that resemble the branches of a tree.
By some estimates, the U.S. imported over 26 million pieces of Corallium between 2001 to 2006.
Continued consumer demand is contributing to the decline of this delicate coral species around the world. Commercial harvesting to satisfy the demand for coral jewelry has reduced colony size, density, and age structure of Corallium over time. Harvesting is also lowering the reproduction capability of this species and is decreasing its genetic diversity.
Research indicates that removal of red and pink corals for the global jewelry and art trade is also leading to smaller and smaller Corallium in the wild. The average base diameter of Corallium is now about two centimeters (0.8 inches), down from an average of 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) just a few decades ago.
Since corals grow at rates of 0.24 to 1.5 millimeters (0.01 to 0.06 inches) per year, they are extremely long-lived and do not reach maturity until they are seven to 12 years old. Once this coral is harvested—especially when it’s extracted at a young age—surrounding coral beds often do not recover.
Editor's note: December marks the final month of the International Year of the Coral Reef 2008.