Smugglers plunder red coral – Algeria’s gold

2023-01-18

Red coral, found along the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, is also known as ‘red gold’ and may fetch up to €5 000 per kg. Algerian waters are home to the largest reserve in the Mediterranean, and the country is one of the largest commercial harvesters of red coral.

Red coral is a precious commodity and is now threatened with extinction resulting from over-exploitation from modern harvesting methods, criminal activities, habitat destruction and climate change.

Found in shades ranging from pale pink to deep red, it was used as jewellery by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Traces of this colourful organism have been found at archaeological sites across Europe, adorning art, sculptures and ornaments. France’s conquest in 1830 of Algeria resulted in the settlement of Europeans and economic growth, in which red coral harvesting and trade played a key role. It also plays a crucial role in the Mediterranean ecosystem.

Today, in addition to its aesthetic value, red coral has broader applications and is used in aeronautics industry, to make aeroplane and rocket screws resistant to high atmospheric pressure.

Under threat of it disappearing from Algeria’s coastline, Algerian authorities imposed a moratorium on its harvesting in 2001. However, the high prices surged with this restriction and created an irresistible incentive to harvest and smuggle red coral illegally, says Reda Djenane, president of Algeria’s National Commission of Fishing and Aquaculture.

Red coral colonies often need as much as a century to develop into beautiful branching structures

Since 2000, Algeria’s coastal security services have seized over 15 tonnes of illegally harvested red coral. In November 2017, 165 kg worth €74 000 were seized near the Tunisian border, while 59 kg were intercepted in the Algerian province of Tizi Ouzou in October 2019. In May 2019, Tunisian security forces arrested seven Tunisians, two Spaniards and an Algerian trying to smuggle nearly 700 kg of red coral worth almost €2 million from Algeria to Tunisia.

An estimated 80% of Algeria’s fished red coral is illegally exported to Europe, depriving the government of revenue from legal exports. Around three tonnes are smuggled annually from Algeria to be sold in Torre del Greco near Naples in Italy – the global centre of red coral processing.

A scientist told ENACT on condition of anonymity that illegal harvesting in Algerian waters also disadvantages the legal markets of other countries and islands, such as Corsica, where red coral fishing is regulated.

In 2021, Algerian authorities announced that red coral harvesting would resume. Certain conditions have been put in place to regulate the harvesting and selling of the coral. One condition is that licensed fishers would sell 70% of their product to the state company AGENOR.

Conditions also govern locations and haulage per year. Selected areas can be exploited for five years and then lie fallow for at least 20 years to allow the red coral to regenerate. Red coral grows only 0.5 mm a year, the scientist says, and colonies often need as much as a century to develop into beautiful branching structures. Further, no more than 3 000 kg may be harvested annually in the selected areas. By legalising red coral fishing, Algeria hopes to control illegal harvesting and its harmful consequences.

Algerian waters are a global centre of this ‘red gold’, which is worth up to €5 000 per kg

However, those in favour of a more durable, long-term strategy argue that some fishers would not necessarily declare their entire harvest and may then sell the excess on the black market at inflated prices. They also fear that the decision to resume harvesting permitted in the new legislation will simply enable poaching to be replaced by state-approved looting.

Conserving red coral requires a concerted global effort that considers its growing industrial value, the commercial value that red coral’s aesthetic beauty offers, and its role in supporting Mediterranean marine ecosystems.

In 1987, Spain unsuccessfully attempted to list red coral under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which would enable international trade in red coral to be subject to trade controls. Twenty years later, the United States and the European Union also failed to have it listed. With the international trade in red coral unprotected by CITES, individual countries have had to make their own national decisions about protecting and trading in red coral.

In 2020 Spain placed a two-year moratorium on exploiting red coral, during which the competent authorities would evaluate new conservation strategies. In France, red coral fishers are registered and must hold a certificate of fitness for hyperbaric conditions, within and deeper than 60 m, for those working underwater. There is an annual limit on the number of fishing licenses granted, and fishers record all their harvests. Italy has introduced a new law that stipulates where and when its fishing is allowed, daily extraction limits, and the ports where it may be offloaded. 

Italy’s approach may provide a good example for Algeria to learn from. According to Alessandro Cau, an assistant professor of marine ecology at the University of Cagliari, current data confirms that coral fishing in Italy is sustainable, with coral reefs regenerating along its Mediterranean coastline.

Red coral has always been a precious commodity, and plays a crucial role in the ecosystem

To strengthen its own legislation, Algeria could also draw on the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recommendations that prohibit harvesting red coral colonies in waters less than 50 m deep. Professor Cau says it’s also important to limit the number of licenses granted for fishing red coral.

But red coral smuggling is not only a national concern – it is a transnational criminal activity where international coordination, enforcement and funding are required to address this illegal trade from source to sale.

Making illegally harvested red coral difficult to sell is critical. Since smuggled red coral is sold as raw material, traceability mechanisms along the harvesting and production chain, from fishing to offloading and selling the raw product, to its complete transformation as jewellery or other items are essential.

The traceability of harvested red coral is important, particularly in countries where unequal markets pit those who regulate and limit their red coral fishing against those where poaching produces a large supply. Certification guaranteeing that the coral is fished in accordance with national or regional (Mediterranean) legislation is still missing from the Algerian regulations. Adding this element is critical to sustainable harvesting and represents a tangible strategy for building a unified red coral management plan across the Mediterranean.

Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, West Africa Regional Organised Crime Observatory, ENACT project, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin

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