Topic Area: Marine Park Management and TACs in Coral Harvest
Geographic Area: Queensland, Australia
Focal Question: Has the implementation of a TAC and marine park management led to a sustainable level of commercial coral harvest in the Great Barrier Reef?

(1) Harriott, V.J., "The Sustainability of Queensland’s Coral Harvest." CRC Reef Research Centre Technical Report No. 40 (2001): 1-33.
(2) Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).  “Long-Term Monitoring of the Great Barrier Reef.” (2001).

            (3) Wachenfeld, D.R., et al.  “State of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.” (1998).

Reviewer: Andrea Jones, Colby College '03


The Great Barrier Reef, the largest reef system in the world, is well recognized for its beauty, biodiversity and its economic bounty, as its generates $1 billion annually in revenues from tourism and fisheries (AIMS, 2001).  The region has been recognized as an environmental hotspot in recent years due to its addition to the World Heritage List and by becoming one the of the world’s largest marine parks when the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) was instituted in 1975 (Wachenfeld, 1998).  Much emphasis has been placed on management and protection of the reef as an ecosystem, through a variety of strategies and policies regarding both tourism and coral harvest.


The Great Barrier Reef supports a modest coral harvest fishery, which generates about $427,000 (AUD) annually and provides an average gross income of $11,700 for its 34 coral harvest fishers (Harriott, 2001).  Currently, approximately 25 tonnes of live coral and 25 tonnes of living rock and rubble are harvested each year, with the extreme majority of the harvest purchased by the aquarium market.  Only about 30% is used in the souvenir and ornamental market, which demands only dead corals (Harriott, 2001).  Current trends in harvesting coral reflect a significant change in market demand and industry patterns since the 1980s, when 86% of harvests were destined for the souvenir and curio market for dead corals.  Also, improved technology has allowed a strong increase in the ability to support live corals in aquarium settings, thus increasing demand for more live varieties, and for those of greater diversity.  In addition, this shift in market demand has caused live coral harvest to become more profitable, at an average retail value of $15-40 per unit, than that of souvenir corals, which retail for $1-5, causing 32 of the 34 current coral fishers to focus on that faction of the industry despite significantly higher capital costs for extraction and maintenance of live corals (Harriott, 2001). 


In order to maintain the well being of the reef environment, coral harvests have been regulated since 1932.  Currently, the fishery is regulated by input and output controls, respectively, leasing of a set number of zones and the use of a total allowable catch (TAC) (Wachenfeld, 1998).  The harvesters lease approximately 50 authorized zones, each of which has an annual TAC of 4 tonnes, with an industry-wide TAC of 212 tonnes.  The TAC includes living rock, dead coral and live hard corals, soft corals, anemones and cnidarians (Harriott, 2001).  In recent years, only about 25% of the TAC has been exploited, which is at least partly due to the shift towards harvesting smaller, but more numerous live corals.  In addition, coral from the Great Barrier Reef is recognized under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which currently prohibits the export of coral, promoting a solely domestic market for coral products from the Great Barrier Reef (Harriott, 2001).


While it is widely recognized that, on a reef-wide and even regional basis, the coral harvest is biologically sustainable, as the reef regenerates 100 times more coral than is harvested, it has become apparent that the TAC forms an insufficient and inconsequential harvesting guideline for several reasons.  The TAC does not prevent unsustainable pressure on the leasing zones specifically, since the zones comprise only a small fraction of the total reef area, but support all of the coral harvest.  No provision is currently made for seasonal rotation of sites.  The problems of unsustainable harvests are intensified when particularly harmful harvesting methods, such as removal with prying tools, are occasionally used.  Also, the TAC is not adjusted to account for degradation resulting from natural forces such as tropical storms and crown-of-thorns starfish (Harriott, 2001). Because TACs have not been modified to reflect the changes in the types of coral harvested, the current zones do not contain proportionate amounts of the desired corals, putting extreme stress on the limited numbers of those species in the leasing areas (Harriott, 2001).  TACs are not species-specific and do not distinguish between live or dead catches and, therefore, are not reflective of sustainable levels of varieties that have become more intensively harvested in recent years (Wachenfeld, 1998).  Because of lax monitoring of coral harvest, fishers often harvest outside of designated zones, thus limiting the effectiveness of the leasing policy (Harriott, 2001).  In general, the current TAC is perceived to be too high, as well as not focused on the appropriate units for regulation.  It appears that the TAC should be set to more closely reflect actual levels of harvest, so as to be an effective regulatory tool in promoting sustainable harvest of all varieties of coral.  Also, experts have suggested that a TAC based upon the mass of corals collected may not be as effective as considering the number and volume collected in evaluating sustainable levels for harvest (Harriott, 2001).


Fishers have recently pushed for less stringent application of CITES in hopes of allowing coral export, which is a several-hundred-million dollar industry worldwide (Harriott, 2001).  Increasing exports could place significant stress on the reef given the current high quota level.  This and other factors must be considered in evaluation of the coral harvest policies in the GBRMPA for the future.  Proposed remedies for the current situation have included lowering the TAC, species- and variety- specific quotas, roving leases and allowing coral harvest in all general-use zones (Harriott, 2001).


While the coral harvest is currently at a sustainable level, there is an apparent need for reevaluation of the current TAC and leasing policies in order to reflect changes in the industry and to ensure continual sustainability in the future.