Japan Declares Red Coral Species Extinct

Japan Declares Red Coral Species Extinct
Photo Credit: Thomas Quine flicker @ CC BY-SA 2.0

What you need to know

Did Chinese coral poachers wipe out the Ogasawara red coral?

Japan’s Ogasawara red coral is now extinct and 56 marine species are endangered, according to a new list of threatened species released by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment, Japan Times reports.

The so-called red list categorizes animals as extinct, critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable species. Previous lists only included land animals, insects and brackish water or freshwater fish. Some of the animals listed in the past included the Japanese river otter and the Iriomote cat.

The latest marine list includes more than 400 species, including all fish, crustaceans and corals. The Ministry of Environment also evaluated the status of animals based on possible changes in their habitats, Japan Times reports.

The cause for the Ogasawara coral’s extinction was not reported.

However, Chinese coral poachers in 2014 reportedly descended on the Ogasawara islands, located about 1,000 km south of Tokyo, to harvest red coral, raising alarm among local fishermen and straining relations between China and Japan. Reports at that time did not make clear which species of red coral were collected.

Red coral is made into jewelry and ornaments and sold at high prices in China. Red coral harvested from Japan and Taiwan fetch up to 10,000 yuan (US$1,400) in specialty stores in Shanghai.

More than 200 Chinese ships began illegal coral harvesting operations between September and November of 2014 within Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Ogasawara islands.

The local fishing union told Hong Kong's Apple Daily in 2014 that the poachers used large trawl nets to harvest as much coral as they could, destroying the ecology of the seabed in the process.

Two-thirds of the world’s coral reefs are considered to be under serious threat, while roughly one-quarter have already been damaged beyond repair, according to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF). Overfishing, tourism, pollution and climate change all contribute to the damage of coral reefs.

Coral is often unable to survive extreme changes in water temperature, which causes the corals to expel an algae and leads to a phenomenon where corals turn white, known as bleaching. According to Japanese reports, it only takes a temperature increase of one to two degrees for bleaching to take place, and unless the water temperature returns to normal, the coral dies from a lack of nutrition.

The Great Barrier Reef in Australia has seen bleaching two years in a row, and experts at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warn that bleaching could become the “new normal” for coral reefs worldwide, with the phenomenon alternating between the north and south hemispheres.

Coral reefs in Japan’s Okinawa island also saw their worst bleaching event this January, leaving 70 percent of the reefs in the area dead.

Editor: Olivia Yang