The fight to protect dwindling and fragile coral reefs suffered a setback after the Council of Agriculture (COA) granted dozens of coral-mining licenses in April, reversing the gradual reduction of licensed coral boats.
The COA granted licenses to 96 boats that had been illegally collecting red coral at a meeting in early April, amending a 1989 regulation prohibiting new licenses.
The regulation stipulated that the government should not issue new licenses allowing companies to tear corals from reefs for the jewelry industry or as souvenirs for tourists.
Although the regulation allowed already licensed companies to renew their permits, the rule led to a steady drop in the number of licensed coral-mining boats. Earlier this year only three licensed boats remain.
A study conducted by local governments found, however, that 96 fishing boats were illegally collecting red coral.
The council amended the regulation in April, saying it was protecting the livelihood of the boat operators. The new regulation allowed all boats with coral-mining equipment identified by the end of last year to attain licenses.
The regulation, which came into effect on May 24, allows coral mining in five areas at least 12 nautical miles (22.2km) away from shore, with a total surface of 7,811km². The designated areas are off the northeast coast and south and southwest coasts.
Each boat is allowed to collect 120kg of coral per year.
The red coral used in jewelry is found in relatively deep water and grows at a rate of about 1mm per year. Coral miners use aggressive equipment that damages the seabed, destroying the environment that supports a complex ecosystem.
“The special tackle used to mine deep water corals can seriously damage the seabed,” said Jan Rong-quen (詹榮桂), research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Biodiversity Center and president of the Taiwan Coral Reefs Society.
COA Deputy Minister Hu Sing-hwa (胡興華) said on Thursday the council could not revoke the licenses, but insisted it could prevent severe damage to coral reefs through regulation.
Hu said the Fishery Agency would ask marine life experts to monitor the effects on sea resources. Licensed boats that violate regulations will also lose their license for one year, Fishery Agency Director Hsieh Da-wen (謝大文) said.
Coral reefs can be found off the Hengchun Peninsula, the northeastern coast and Penghu, Green Island and Lanyu (蘭嶼). In addition to mining, coral is threatened by global warming, artificial fish reefs and industrial pollution.
Jan said on Friday that data about the abundance of coral living deeper than 100m is difficult to obtain.
“We cannot know how many coral reefs still exist in deep water,” Jan said.
The Reef Check Foundation, an international non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring reefs, had declared this year international coral reef year.
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