Precious red coral, or Corallium Rubrum, is an ancient and precious species of coral found in the warm waters of the Mediterranean and the Western Pacific. It is an organic material composed of living polyps that secrete cup-shaped skeletons of limestone. Also dubbed ‘red gold’ or ‘the diamond of the sea’, red coral has been harvested and polished for use in jewellery for millennia – the Gauls used it to adorn their weapons and helmets and there is evidence that Minoan and Mycenaean civilisations used red coral for jewellery and decoration as early as 2000 BC.
As the only red coral species that is tinted both inside and out, Corallium rubrum is particularly highly prized by the jewellery industry, and with a burgeoning middle market emerging in China, demand is increasingly outstripping supply. Aggressive coral harvesting combined with increasing water temperatures and the acidification of oceans has had a dramatic effect on coral colonies, to the extent that scientists have warned of the risk of their extinction. In a report published recently by National Geographic, scientists described the magnitude of loss of large red coral colonies due to overexploitation as comparable to mass deforestation on a continental scale. Unfortunately, as with all rare objects, scarcity has a tendency to increase desirability, which in turn generates demand and further diminishes supply. This makes for a lucrative poaching environment and a vicious circle that is difficult to break.
However, as sustainability and ethical consumerism movements continue to gain momentum, issues relating to the overharvesting of coral may soon begin to present challenges for jewellers. An international trade agreement signed by more than 180 countries now restricts the export of red coral harvested after 1969, and measures are currently being implemented to counteract overharvesting and maintain red coral populations within biologically sustainable parameters. Certain countries, such as Algeria, Malta and Monaco, have gone so far as to ban coral harvesting outright. Will other countries follow suit?
Don’t hold your breath. At present, there is little motivation for change, particularly since the economies of many Mediterranean coastal towns rely heavily upon the sale of red coral. That said, tighter restrictions are beginning to take effect, and in Italy today, red coral branches can only be harvested with hand-held chisels by a limited body of 100 licensed scuba divers, who are only permitted to harvest from sea beds on a rotating cycle between May and September. Whether or not this will provide adequate protection for the coral reefs remains to be seen, and since regulatory frameworks vary from country to country, levels of exploitation across the Mediterranean are not uniform. In Spain, for example, a recent study by scientists in Barcelona noted that given the damage to reefs and the slow growth rate of precious coral (averaging 0.4mm per year), it would take a 60-year harvesting ban to restore Mediterranean red coral colonies to sustainable levels. Meanwhile, a 2017 report on Croatian coral colonies described damage to reefs in the Adriatic as ‘irreversible’, with 65% of the coral reefs along the Adriatic coast described as ‘completely’ or ‘almost completely’ destroyed.
The issue of coral overexploitation is not new, but, as with many environmental concerns, efforts to combat it have lost momentum in recent years. Back in 2002, Tiffany & Co. announced that they would not use coral in any of their future jewellery designs, and they launched a Too Precious to Wear campaign in conjunction with an ocean conservation organisation, SeaWeb, in an effort to raise awareness of the importance of coral reef conservation. This movement garnered substantial support ahead of the 2010 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species’ vote to protect red coral from harvesting, but it fell by the wayside when Italy opposed the implementation of new regulation.
Action is undoubtedly required, but experts are divided over what form it should take. Bans on coral harvesting are unpopular, not only due to the economic impact they have upon coastal communities, but also because they tend to save one coral reef at the expense of another. The South China Sea is a case in point: buyers who previously purchased coral from countries such as Fiji and Indonesia, which have both implemented bans, now look towards suppliers in Japan or the Mediterranean. The knock-on effects of more localised harvesting could be devastating.
The most sustainable way to make a difference will likely involve reducing demand by raising awareness of the fragility of coral ecosystems. Happily, 2019 has seen a boom in coral conservation awareness, in part thanks to a steady stream of media headlines warning of the risks that chemicals contained in sunscreen pose to coral reefs. Bans on sunscreens at certain beaches across Mexico, Hawaii and the US have sparked heated debates over whether public safety should be prioritised over environmental concerns, and Google searches for “reef-safe sunscreen” have more than quadrupled over the past five years. Ultimately, I believe it will be conversations such as these that turn the tide in the fight to save our coral colonies.