How Much is That Coral in the Window?

Discover the different aspects of the global coral trade and learn how to ask the right questions when picking new corals

Do you remember the last time you saw brightly colored coral? Perhaps it was in an aquarium at a restaurant or doctor’s office. How did it get there? Thanks to improving aquarium technologies in the last 30 years, a trip to see a reef doesn’t necessarily mean booking yourself a flight, but the coral you saw on the other side of the glass may have had its own plane ticket!

Today, living corals fly all over the world as part the global coral trade, which is a valuable component of many coastal economies in the Coral Triangle. Fiji, Australia and Indonesia have been major exporters historically, but this has fluctuated throughout the years as collecting and exporting regulations have changed in each country. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is an international voluntary agreement among governments that helps regulate the trade of wildlife to assure species do not go extinct from high market demand. 183 countries have joined the Convention, which includes provisions that require a management authority within the country to issue exporting permits.

Stony corals, blue corals, organ pipe corals, fire corals and lace corals need export permits under CITES.

The United States either prohibits or strictly regulates taking corals from United States waters. Due to lack of local supply, the United States imports more than 65% of live coral on the market. As the world’s largest importer, United States consumers can play a pivotal role in driving the demand for more sustainably sourced coral. By making a conservation-minded purchase, you can support healthy reefs and coastal economies. There are different ways to get corals for your aquarium, and we are going to share steps you can take and questions you can ask to become a responsible coral aquarist.

Where can coral come from?

The wild: A coral fragment (“frag” for short) can be harvested from a parent colony out on the reef. This doesn’t harm the parent colony—both the parent and the frag will keep growing. When we think about sustainable fisheries, we may think about tuna or crab. Sustainable coral fisheries are important too! CITES permits help exporting countries manage their coral harvest.

The farm: Coral “farming” or “gardening” has become quite popular. There are a few different ways to set up a coral farm in the ocean. Typically, the frags are arranged in rows and tended to until they are big enough to be sold. There are a number of these farms in the Coral Triangle, which is a promising economic activity.

The tank next door: Similar to how a frag can be harvested from a parent colony in the wild, a frag can be clipped from a colony in a tank. Many saltwater aquarists have “frag swaps” and trade corals with each other.

What should I ask when I am picking new corals?

If you buy wild-caught salmon in the grocery store, you might already ask the seafood specialist behind the counter if it was harvested sustainably. You can do the same thing when stocking an aquarium with wild-harvested coral by asking your seller if there is a management plan in place for the harvest area. Is the area monitored regularly to assess reef health and overall coral diversity? Are there special size limits or quotas the collectors abide by? Collectors have a vested interest in maintaining a healthy reef, so that it can continue to provide resources. Coral farms are a great way to promote reef stewardship too. Many coral farming operations help restore their local reefs by outplanting a percentage of the corals they grow. You can ask if they have a reef restoration component. Purchasing corals from coral farms in countries that have traditionally exported coral is a great way to support these communities and help them preserve their reef resources. Tank-raised corals take some of the harvest pressure off reefs, too. Finding a coral frag from a tank closer to you can save the stress associated with transportation and shipping.


Our fascination with coral reefs continues to evolve, and so does the global coral trade. With modern technology, it is easier to get live coral than ever before. We need to be smart about it. Check where your coral is coming from. By supporting sustainably harvested corals, you can support coastal livelihoods and help restore reefs.

Coral Images by: FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, David Burdick / NOAA, Aaron Gustafson

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