Corals make up a diverse group of marine animals, ranging from reef-building species that live in shallow water to species that can live at much greater depths (up to 3,000 meters). While coral reefs make up only a small fraction of marine environments around the world, they host more than 25% of the world’s fish. The ecosystems that form around coral reefs are some of the most biologically diverse systems in the world. Coral can feed by trapping small fish or plankton with their stinging tentacles but more often shallow-water corals get their energy from the algae that live on the coral and absorb the sun’s energy through photosynthesis.
Coral are threatened by a variety of factors, including polluted runoff, destructive fishing practices, development, and harvesting for the aquarium trade and for jewelry. There is an ever growing demand for reef “products,” meaning live coral and live rock (dead coral with live invertebrates attached to it) for the aquarium trade and dead coral for curios and for jewelry.
The so-called “precious” corals most in demand for jewelry and carvings include black corals (order Antipatharia) and pink and red corals (family Coralliidae). The stony corals (order Scleractinia) include reef-building species. Many coral species are native to the United States. Most coral entering the United States in international trade comes from Asia.
Laws & Regulations
Coral species may be protected under international, domestic or even state environmental laws. Black corals (Antipatharia) were listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1981. In 1985, amidst concerns about the effects of commercial trade on fragile coral ecosystems, the CITES Parties listed all stony corals, blue corals (Helioporidae), organ pipe corals (Tubiporidae), and fire corals (Milleporidae) in Appendix II. Lace corals (Stylasteridae) were later added to Appendix II and China has listed 4 species of red coral in Appendix III.
Some coral species are listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Visit the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's (Service) Endangered Species Program page to learn more about these listings.
Each U.S. state may have separate regulations that control the harvest of coral within its waters. In addition, there are different regulations when handling wild-harvested or captive-bred coral. It is strongly recommended that you contact your state wildlife agency and the Service's Branch of Permits before importing or exporting coral.
Traveling to the Caribbean? Visit our Travel & Trade section on Caribbean travel for more information on buying souvenirs.