The Global Trade in Marine Animals

The international trade in live marine animals is huge – there may be up to 30 million fish and 1.5 million corals colonies traded in any one year. The biggest single exporter is Indonesia, accounting for more than 70% of exports. Other countries exporting reef animals include Fiji, the Philippines, Vietnam and Australia with Hong Kong being important in trade routes. Most of the demand comes from the US, the EU and Japan which together account for over 80% of imports.

Some fisheries are well managed but many are informal, poorly regulated and involve high mortality rates and unsustainable collection practices such as the collection of juvenile corals or the use of cyanide for collecting reef fishes.

CITES is an international convention which controls the trade in endangered species. CITES aims to prevent the trade from becoming the reason any endangered species become more threatened while still allowing the economic exchange to go on. It sets quotas, can restrict the sale of certain species from certain places, and aims to ensure there is no detriment to species from the trade.

For the last 10 years ZSL has been working closely with the UK Border Agency CITES team at Heathrow to monitor the trade in marine organisms coming into the UK. In that time we have received thousands of animals confiscated under the regulations, assisted the authorities with identification of shipments and trained Border Agency staff in basic coral taxonomy.

Confiscations are largely unpredictable; we have very little in some years and then hundreds in others. Shipments may also contain reef fish including seahorses and giant clams which are also regulated under CITES, as well as soft corals, shrimp and starfish. Unfortunately we often see species that are unsuitable for life long-term in the aquarium environment such as this beautiful elegance coral (Catalaphyllia jardinei) from Indonesia.

CITES is a very important weapon in the fight against the illegal trade in wild animals and successful court cases can end in custodial sentences. The single group of animals we most commonly receive are hard corals (Scleractinia) and as result we have a collection of over 1000 colonies of more than 70 species on exhibit in the aquarium at London Zoo – the UK’s biggest collection. We are able to distributed corals to many other zoos and aquariums as part of managed programmes as well as use our collection of confiscated coral for research, outreach and education.

ZSL works hard to encourage aquarium hobbyists to be responsible when sourcing animals for their tanks, to choose suitable species carefully and to pick 'farmed' corals over wild collected ones wherever possible.

Our collaboration with UK customs helps them to monitor and control the trade in wild collected marine animals and is an important part of the work that ZSL does to protect wild animals and their habitats from over-exploitation.

Coral confiscations

Corals (number of animals) received by ZSL from confiscations between 2003-2012

Corals (number of animals) received by ZSL from confiscations between 2003-2012

Reef fish trade routes SE Asia
Reef fish trade routes SE Asia