By: Robert Keith-Reid
Article Source: Fiji Islands Business 
Have you heard of the live coral trade? It’s really a trade in bits of coral reef rock covered by particular algae species.
Put live rock in your seawater aquarium and it keeps the water clean for your collection of tropical fish and other sealife to thrive in.
Tagaqe chief... Ratu Timoci Batireregu working with hotels along the Coral Coast to secure the protection of tribal reefs by the installation of effective sewage and water treatment plants.
By one estimate, there are globally at least 1.5 million tropical aquarium hobbyists—mostly in the United States-—the world’s greatest live rock market. It buys 90% of it.
The trade began 15 to 20 years ago. When coral reef conservation-minded United States authorities banned the collection of live rock from local sources, the trade turned to sources abroad.
Fiji, with its great spread of coral reef, became a primary source of supply for the simple reason it was accessible—a direct 10-hour flight away. It became one of three main sources.
For Fiji’s coastal villages with little other money-making opportunities, the live rock business became a great blessing.
In 2001, they harvested and exported about 800,000 kilogrammes of the stuff.
According to the WWF, the world’s conservation body, the target is rock covered with light to dark pink or purple algae. This is broken up with an iron rod, loaded on to a bamboo raft and taken ashore to a buyer. At least 60% of a lump of rock needs to be covered by the right kind of algae or be rejected by buyers.
The rock is put under a continuous salt water spray for 24 to 72 hours before shipment, trimmed of all visible green algae growth and graded according to shape, weight and percentage of coral line algae.
According to WWF, rock is bought for F$1.20 a kilogramme which is shared according to Fijian custom.
At an average of 150 kilogrammes a week, about 7500 kilogrammes harvested annually by a full-time harvest will earn about F$9000 a year. That’s a lot of money for the average Fijian villager.
In some areas, after 10 years of collecting, villagers are noticing some of the consequences of the live rock trade, such as the destruction of marine life habitats, the undermining of reef structure and underwater erosion.
Large amounts of rock are often rejected by buyers and left on beaches as accumulating piles of waste.
Not surprisingly there are conflicting views about the live rock trade in Fiji and abroad.
Conservationists want the trade stopped. Villagers need the cash. Tourists are discomforted by the sight of villagers chipping out lumps of rock from the reef.
An American business engaged in the Fiji trade naturally advocates it as an important cash earner for villagers, not to mention more so for it, provided harvesting is done wisely.
Only a very small area of the reef is affected, far less than one percent, it says, while the removal of rock actually benefits the reef by creating holes occupied by coral and fish where there was only rock before.
The main collecting area in Fiji is along the 50-kilometre reef-fringed Coral Coast of Viti Levu, between Nadi and Suva.
Enter the Fogarty International Centre of the United States National Institute of Health working since 2004 with the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of the South Pacific. These institutions have a deal with Tagaqe village on the Coral Coast.
Instead of breaking off pieces of coral rock for sale to the saltwater aquarium trade, Tagaqe has begun “planting” pumice pellets, each several inches long and hung by wire in shallow water above the reef. After about eight months these become naturally covered by a desirable species of algae. They become a substitute for live rock.
An agreement with Tagaqe’s chief, Ratu Timoci Batireregu, was initially for the purchase of 5000 pumice blanks at a cost of around F$3400.
Villagers keep half the profit from selling the cultivated rock, as it is called, and reinvesting the other half in the next crop.
Walt Smith, a conservation-conscious American aquarium company based in Fiji, has agreed to market the stuff as an environmentally-friendly product to aquariums around the world.
Ratu Timoci, a retired forestry department official, is an interesting, far-sighted man. As head of five clans totalling about 1800 people, he controls the traditional use of a length of about six kilometres of fringing reef in the Taqaqe area. Inland, the village has thousands of hectares of mahogany growing towards maturity. He’s working with hotels along the coast to secure the protection of tribal reefs by the installation of effective sewage and water treatment plants.
Revenue from the new cultivated rock venture will flow to the village’s development projects and education, he says.
Studies show that cultivated rock is as effective as live rock for purifying aquariums.
The Georgia Institute of Technology’s aquarium at Atlanta agreed to use cultivated rock in its exhibits.
Researchers think that coral reefs have potential for yielding new drugs, including antibiotics and anti-cancer agents.
Plans are for similar projects in five other villagers.
Kirk Bowman, a Georgia Institute of Technology associate professor, has ideas about an adopt-a-coral deal with tourists and concerned people making a donation to have a piece of coral planted in their name. Proceeds will be used for coral reef conservation work in Fiji.
Conservation of coral reefs is important, scientists say, because of new drug discovery possibilities.
Tropical countries like Fiji are the most promising places for discoveries because of the high diversity and tendency of organisms in these habitats to fight back against predators, competitors and pathogens by evolving chemical defences.