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Hunt for 'red gold' corals pushes ecosystems to the brink

February 28, 2023

A coral-smuggling business that has emerged around the Mediterranean is harming wildlife.

A coral jeweler in Tunisia
Coral jewelers are struggling as ecosystems witherImage: Jan-Philipp Scholz/DW

For 20 years in a shop in the small Tunisian port town of Tabarka, Mourad Arfaoui and his family have turned precious corals into jewelry. "Everyone pitches in," he said. "My sons practically grew up in the store."

But Arfaoui doubts there will be a business for his children to take over. The corals he needs to continue his trade are in short supply. Locals say nine out of ten coral jewelry stores in Tabarka, a North African town about 200km from the Italian island of Sardinia, have closed. When divers send shipments, the prices are often too high.

"At some point, there probably won't be any corals here at all," said Arfaoui. "They will simply disappear."

A coral statue in the Tunisian town of Tabarka
Corals are an important part of the economy in the Tunisian town of Tabarka Image: Jan-Philipp Scholz/DW

Dying ecosystems

Precious, or red corals are simple organisms found mainly in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. They avoid light and tend to live hundreds of feet below the surface of the water. Locals call them the Red Trees of the Mediterranean because they help the ecosystem flourish.

But their beauty has also made them a sought-after raw material for jewelers — at great cost to the planet.

For decades, people caught them with trawl nets that wiped out reefs. The international organization International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) placed precious corals on its Red List of endangered species. Exploitation is not the only threat they face — climate change is heating oceans so fast that the world's corals are set to be wiped out in the coming decades — but it has sped up their decline.

Since the 1980s, most countries have banned trawling for corals. In 2019, the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) adopted more rules to protect them. Divers can now only collect them at depths greater than 50 meters (164 feet), and governments have to make sure their origin can be traced. In Tunisia, only a few dozen licensed divers are allowed to bring up precious corals.

Corals deep beneath the surface of the water
Divers have risked their lives to collect corals from more than 100 meters below the surfaceImage: Jan-Philipp Scholz/DW

'Almost fished dry'

But behind closed doors, businesspeople in Tabarka talk about a flourishing black market. The rules are hard to enforce and the high prices attract organized crime. A study funded by the European Union found precious corals worth several million euros are smuggled out of the Mediterranean every year — with North Africa and southern Italy acting as the most important hubs.

In Algeria, where corals are called "red bull's blood" and rules for catching them are stricter, a shadow industry has formed. According to experts, around three tons of corals are smuggled out of there every year. Illegal activity has left some waters "almost fished dry," said Salah Bjaoui, a former coral diver in Tabarka. "There is a lot of black-market fishing and that presents us with huge problems."

Police have confiscated vehicles in which precious corals were hidden together with ecstasy pills. The goods are usually shipped via Tunisia to destinations all over the world, where it is hardly possible to check the origin.

"With coral, it's now almost like with cocaine," said Bjaoui. "Some time ago, they caught an Italian with a boat here who had brought the corals illegally to Italy. Everyone knows this smuggling is going on here."

Coral jewelry in Tunisia
Jewelry made from precious corals is highly sought Image: DW

'A kind of war'

Torre del Greco, a small town just outside the Italian city of Naples, is considered the unofficial world capital of the coral trade. Many family-run companies make jewelry from precious corals to supply international brands like Gucci and Bulgari. The business community can still afford the rising prices for raw materials.

Few people in Torre del Greco want to talk about the booming black market. Miko Cataldo, one of the few coral dealers willing to speak openly about it, said: "We fight the problem with illegal dealers every day."

Like many in the business, Cataldo benefits from the gold-rush mood in the coral trade. The rise in demand is not just for jewelry. In some Asian countries precious corals are also valued as beauty products and for health effects.

Torre del Greco in Italy
Torre del Greco is seen as the unofficial capital of the coral tradeImage: Jan-Philipp Scholz/DW

Criminals have even threatened Cataldo in his store because he has spoken up against them, he said. "It's a kind of war we're fighting here." 

Italy has developed a national plan to protect marine wildlife. But smugglers are instead taking their goods through Spain and France, said Cataldo.

For Arfaoui, the Tunisian artisan, the illegal trade stems from greed. "Precious corals are threatened — just like many other species — because we no longer give them time to develop. We have forgotten to be patient and to appreciate the richness of the sea."

This article was originally published in German.