Coral Reef NOAA
April 19, 2014  


image of large blue Napoleon wrasse.
A large Napoleon wrasse on a reef. Large fish may become less common on reefs that experience impacts of fishing, which can alter ecosystem function. Photo credit: NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center Coral Reef Ecosystem Division

Coral reefs serve as habitat for many commercially important species targeted for fishing. Fisheries related to coral ecosystems range from artisanal subsistence fishing, commercial fisheries, aquaculture, the live reef fish for food industry, recreational fishing, the aquarium/marine ornamental trade, and the curio and fashion industries.

The fish that grow and live on coral reefs are a significant food source for over a billion people worldwide—many of whom live far from the reefs that feed them. Of that number, at least 85 percent rely principally on fish as their major source of protein. [a]

With 350 million people living within 50 km of the coast, communities in Southeast Asia are heavily reliant on marine and coastal resources for their livelihoods. This is particularly true of small-scale fishermen living in rural areas and relying, at times solely, on these resources both as a source of income and for food. [b] In fact, of the estimated 30 million small-scale fishers in the developing world, most are dependent to some extent on coral reefs for food and livelihood, [c] with 25 percent of all fish caught in these regions coming from coral reefs. [d] In the Philippines, more than 1 million small-scale fishers depend directly on coral reefs for their livelihood. [c]

Unsustainable fishing results in shifts in fish size and species composition within coral communities, which may precipitate large-scale ecosystem changes alone or when combined with other threats. For example, unsustainable fishing of large predatory and herbivorous fishes is credited as the beginning of the end for some Caribbean reefs. In the absence of predators and competing herbivores, the long-spined sea urchin became the primary control of macroalgae levels on these reefs. Their increased population density left the sea urchins extremely susceptible to an unknown disease that killed off over 90 percent of the species in the Western Atlantic in 1982. This in turn led to algal overgrowth and the decline of reefs in the region. [l]

The live reef fish trade has two main components—live food fish and ornamental aquarium fish. Accurate figures are not available on the total value of these trades, but extrapolation from partial estimates indicates that the total value of the trade exceeds $1 billion per year. Southeast Asia is the hub of this trade, supplying up to 85 percent of the aquarium trade and nearly all of the live food fish trade. [e] However, the US is the primary importer of marine ornamentals. Trade in live reef food fish and marine ornamentals are both a source of income for many in Southeast Asia and a source of local reef degradation due to destructive capture techniques such as blast and cyanide fishing. [f]

Approximately half of all federally managed fisheries in the United States depend on coral reefs and related habitats for a portion of their life cycles. [g] The NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service estimates the annual commercial value of US fisheries from coral reefs to be over $100 million. Reef-based recreational fisheries generate over $100 million annually in the US. [h] Globally, one estimate shows fisheries benefits account for $5.7 billion of the total $29.8 billion global net benefit provided by coral reefs. [h] Sustainable coral reef fisheries in Southeast Asia alone are valued at $2.4 billion per year. [i] These numbers do not take into account the value of deep-sea corals, which are themselves home for many commercially valuable species and thus additional fisheries value.

Properly managed reefs can yield, on average, 15 tons of fish and other seafood per square kilometer each year. [j] However, destructive fishing practices; such as dynamite fishing, cyanide fishing, and trawling; and unsustainable fishing, are threatening the world's coral ecosystems and limiting the long-term productivity of reef-related fisheries. Dynamite, cyanide and trawling gear physically damage coral ecosystems and their inhabitants and these fishing practices are not solely affecting just a target species. More than 80 percent of the world's shallow reefs are severely over-fished. [k]

*Unless otherwise noted, all monetary values presented are in US Dollars.