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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal Timothy E. Wirth, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs
Prepared remarks before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans
Washington, DC, May 6, 1997
Released by the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs


Testimony before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans on May 6, 1997, for House Resolution 87, expressing the sense of the House that there should be global action to condemn coral reef fisheries that are harmful to coral reef ecosystems and promote the development of sustainable coral reef fishing practices worldwide.

Good morning Mr. Chairman. It is a pleasure to provide testimony in support of Congress's commitment to maintaining the integrity of coral reefs, as evidenced by H. Res. 87, expressing the sense of the House that there should be global action to condemn coral reef fisheries that are harmful to coral reef ecosystems and promote the development of sustainable coral reef fishing practices worldwide. We welcome this resolution because it is consistent with the Department of State's efforts to protect coral reefs around the world. Not only does H. Res. 87 address the current national and global coral reef crisis, but it also promotes reef protection efforts during the 1997 International Year of the Reef.
I also want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to appear before you today to tell you about our efforts to promote sustainable coral reef fishing practices around the world through the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI). During President Clinton's recent visit to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, he praised the ICRI as "a shining example of what we can achieve….our effort to save the world's reefs is a model for the work that we can do together in other environmental areas".
Coral reefs, commonly called the rainforests of the sea, are one of the most productive and biologically diverse ecosystems on our planet. They are also a seriously threatened natural resource with significant value. Coral reefs offer recreational and educational opportunities and provide an important source of revenue and jobs for both the fishing and tourism industries. For example, in the Florida Keys, reef-related tourist activities such as fishing, diving, and boating contribute $1.5 billion per year to the local economy. In Hawaii, revenues from coral reef diving alone are estimated at $20 million per year. A significant proportion of the economic growth of many Pacific islands, including Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianna Islands, is attributable to expanding tourism industries which rely on natural reef resources.
Coral reefs are one of the most important food reservoirs in the ocean, supporting both subsistence and commercial reef fisheries. Although they cover only about 0.2% of the ocean, coral reefs provide habitat for about 10% of the fish caught for human consumption and they are the spawning grounds for 15% of the world's fish catch. In some areas in the Pacific, reef-based fish and other organisms account for 50% of local daily protein intake. In the Caribbean, over one-half of the known species of reef-related fish are commercially marketed.
In 1995, the commercial value of domestically harvested reef fish and shellfish was estimated to exceed $79.5 million. In the Florida Keys, the commercial fishing industry contributed $17 million to the local economy. Imports into the U.S. of reef fish for consumption or the aquarium fish trade amount to an additional $25-50 million annually.
While the benefits provided by coral reefs are well-known, the threats they currently face are not. While coral reef ecosystems are adapted to respond to natural system stresses or perturbations, they are unprepared for the impact of increasing levels of human activity. Scientists estimate that more than two-thirds of the earth's coral reefs are threatened or in decline. Damaged or destroyed reefs can be found along the shores of more than 93 countries, including the United States and its territories.
To combat the serious threats to coral reefs worldwide, I was pleased to announce the establishment of the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) in 1994. The Department of State hosted the ICRI Secretariat until 1996 and continues to play a central role in the Initiative. ICRI was designed as a partnership of local communities, scientists, conservation groups, resource users, private interests, and governments working to protect and manage coral reef resources including associated ecosystems such as sea grass beds and mangroves. It has grown rapidly over the past three years from a small group of founding partners to a large consortium in which over 73 countries participate. By design, project ownership and leadership is intentionally shared at regional, national, or local levels. With this strategy, local resource users and the private sector can play a major role in implementing market-based management initiatives which are designed to promote the sustainable utilization of coral reef resources.
As recognized in H. Res. 87, unsustainable fishing practices are one of the most detrimental of all human activities impacting our reefs. These practices include fishing techniques that destroy the reef itself or encourage excessive harvest of available stocks. Corals, the foundation of reef ecosystems, grow slowly and are easily damaged. Scientists estimate that in some areas it may take over 600 years for new coral to reach the size of the corals that have been destroyed by human activities.
Fish harvesting methods which utilize cyanide or other poisons, surfactants, or explosives destroy valuable habitat and are, therefore, not sustainable. One method commonly used in the Pacific is an effective, but destructive, form of trawl fishing that entails the use of metal wheels connected by a metal axle. As the wheels and axle are dragged across the ocean floor, coral protrusions are broken off and fish swim into the trawl net.
Over-harvest of commercial species jeopardizes the bio-integrity or balance of reef ecosystems. For example, if grouper or sea urchins, both prized coral reef commodities, are over harvested, algae previously eaten by those species grow unchecked. Excessive algal growth blocks sunlight critical for the viability and growth of corals. Another destructive fishing method targets fish gathered in large numbers at known reef locations in response to seasonal and lunar phases in order to spawn. At such times fish are highly vulnerable to severe depletion or even total elimination.
It was a great pleasure to serve as the Honorary Workshop Chairman when ICRI's strategic plans, the Call to Action and Framework for Action, were rolled out in the Philippines in 1995. These documents endorsed strategies to encourage sustainable coral reef management practices world-wide. These include measures to prevent illegal fishing practices, achieve sustainable fisheries and to protect the ecological systems that support them. ICRI partners encourage the implementation of the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and the development and promotion of mechanisms for regulating international trade in species that are illegally harvested, endangered or threatened.
International activities under the Initiative have included a major diplomatic campaign and a series of global and regional workshops convened in the Pacific, the Tropical Americas, the South and East Asian Seas, East Africa and the Western Indian Ocean. These workshops have provided fora for developing sustainable fishing practices for coral reefs.
As an example, ICRI catalyzed regional cooperation in the Caribbean to develop a strategy to conserve the queen conch (Strombus gigas), a reef associated species. It is estimated that about 4,000 tons of queen conch are landed in the Caribbean each year. Queen conch fisheries off Florida have virtually collapsed due to over-harvest, and conch resources throughout the Caribbean are in urgent need of management. To address this problem, the U.S. sponsored a conference in 1996 on the management of the queen conch. The participants from 18 Caribbean governments adopted the Declaration of San Juan, a first step toward developing a common management strategy for the queen conch in the Caribbean Sea region. The Declaration is a landmark agreement for the Caribbean, and it is our hope that these initial efforts to conserve and manage this species will pave the way for future cooperation on other regional fishery resources.
Both H. Res. 87 and ICRI are directed against the use of poisons, surfactants, and explosives on coral reefs. Of particular concern is cyanide fishing, which is becoming more widespread in response to growing worldwide demand for ornamental aquarium fish and the strong restaurant demand for live fish. The U.S. is the largest importer of exotic aquarium fish, accounting for almost half of the world's aquarium-fish business. The live reef food fish trade is centered primarily in Hong Kong and valued at more than $1 billion.
Cyanide fishing poses a serious threat to some of the world's most diverse coral reefs. Cyanide pellets or solutions are spread over the reefs to stun target fish species. This process kills many of the desired fish as well as non-target fish and corals. I have led several major U.S. initiatives involving representatives from the aquarium and cyanide industries, international organizations, conservation groups and foreign governments in an effort to halt this destructive practice.
While cyanide fishing by local or foreign vessels has been a long-standing practice in the Philippines and Indonesia, there has been some indication that the technique has spread to the waters of the Solomon Islands, the Maldives, and Papua New Guinea. In order to substantiate this information, the Department of State is actively seeking information from diplomatic posts around the world on the occurrence of cyanide fishing and other destructive fishing practices and host country efforts to eliminate them. The Department of State and The Nature Conservancy have collaborated to produce a report on the national laws of several Asian countries relating to destructive fishing practices; information that will help us determine how to improve enforcement at U.S. ports of entry and within the region. Our embassies and The Nature Conservancy have also cooperated on an effective campaign to raise awareness from the community level to the highest political levels of government on the destruction being caused by cyanide.
I participated in discussions on cyanide fishing, hosted by the government of Indonesia, at the Second Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1995 in Jakarta, and subsequently held a February 1996 meeting with cyanide industry representatives. The companies immediately engaged in the process and responded by educating distributors and customers about the perils of cyanide fishing and by using their tight control of cyanide supplies to ensure that cyanide they produce is not used on coral reefs.
As part of their commitment, the cyanide industry is working to improve tests to detect even trace quantities of cyanide in fish. Cyanide detection tests are being used successfully in the Philippines for both food and aquarium fish exports. The industry is currently working on an improved test protocol that we hope will be effective on live fish.
While many U.S. aquarium hobbyists may be unaware that they are supporting an industry that damages the reef ecosystems they are attempting to recreate at home, others are stepping forward to take action. Domestic and international ICRI partners in the non-governmental and private sector have formed a coalition which is exploring the possibility of establishing a voluntary certification system for importers of aquarium fish.
In the international arena, the U.S. introduced the cyanide fishing issue in both the Marine Resource Conservation Working Group and the Fisheries Working Group of APEC (the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum), with the result that two workshops addressing the problem are scheduled for this year.
Coral reef ecosystems offer benefits to humankind beyond those realized for tourism, recreation, aesthetics and shoreline protection from the ravages of storms. As Secretary of State Albright wrote in the Department's recently published Environmental Report, "we know that damage to the global environment, whether it is overfishing of the oceans, the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the release of chemical pollutants or the destruction of tropical forests, threatens the health of the American people and the future of our economy".
ICRI has made great strides over the past three years, providing a strong and well-accepted framework for future efforts both in protecting our national reef treasures and in fostering similar action around the world. In many countries, the legal and regulatory framework provides little protection to coral reefs, and management capacity is limited. The Administration strongly supports H. Res. 87 which sends a clear signal, both at home and abroad, that the U.S. government is committed to ICRI and to long-term coral reef resource management. The Department of State has already expressed its support for a complementary bill, H. Con. Res. 8, the coral reef protection act, which also recognizes the importance of protecting this vital resource.
Mr. Chairman, thank you for providing this opportunity which has allowed me to document our efforts to encourage continued international cooperation to save our coral reefs and to endorse Congress's important contribution to those efforts with the introduction of H. Res. 87.

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