Red coral has a remarkable model for biomineralization, which makes it unique in that it represents all three kingdoms — animal, vegetable, mineral — and has been revered by cultures around the Med because it does not perish when brought to the surface. Red corals were the underwater forests of the Mediterranean and used to be called the red tree. Today, their former forest-likes structure have been overexpoited and resemble low-relief grass plain-like habitats due to the cycle of discovery, exploitation and depletion of colonies.
Mourad Arfaoui has dedicated his life to corals. In his small shop in Tabarka, Tunisia, the artisan turns them into jewelry. Tourists can take home a precious coral earring as a souvenir for as little as EUR 15. Mourad does not earn that much in his trade, but for the past 20 years it has always been enough to enable his wife and children to lead a good life. The whole family lends a hand in the shop.
"A few of us work in the morning, others come in the afternoon. We make all of the coral jewelry here ourselves – from raw material to sale. My sons grew up with the coral jewelry here at the store," says Mourad Arfaoui.
Arfaoui's home town of Tabarka is on Tunisia's northern Mediterranean coast, just 200 km from the Italian island of Sardinia. For centuries, everything in the small port town has revolved around red corals. Today however, more and more local business people are giving up the trade: they are running out of supplies. Even when they can get hold of a new shipment from the area's official coral divers, the prices are often prohibitively expensive. Nine out of ten shops have already closed, say the residents here.
Fear of extinction
Mourad also no longer believes that his children will continue in the business. “Eventually there might be no coral at all. They will simply disappear,” fears the craftsman. "The scarcity is already leading to the fact that people here can no longer afford coral jewelry, a necklace made of really high-quality precious corals can quickly cost thousands of euros."
Precious corals —also known as red corals — are mainly found in the Mediterranean Sea. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has included it in its Red List of Threatened Species. Since precious corals are light-shy, they usually live at a depth of hundreds of meters and due to overexploitation, it is rare to find colonies that reach their historical maximum size, except in areas where fisheries have never operated.
Red coral has been harvested in the Med for at least 2000 years. Countless divers have died trying to find them. For a long time, corals were caught by boats with huge trawl nets, which destroyed large areas of the seabed and almost completely wiped out the stocks in some regions. This practice has been banned in many countries since the 1980s. In 2019, the Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM), which brings together 22 countries and the European Union, introduced a number of additional recommendations to protect precious corals from extinction. These regulations specify that fishing can only be done by divers, the only tool allowed during harvesting is the ice ax and fishing at depths below 50 meters is prohibited.
However, the GFCM acknowledges that more needs to be done, and that there is an urgent need to implement a traceability scheme for red coral in order to curb the likely high level of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) catches and to ensure a sustainable exploitation.
In Tunisia only a few dozen licensed divers are allowed to catch precious corals — at least officially.
"Almost like cocaine"
Many businessmen in Tabarka keep silently mentioning a thriving black market for precious corals. The rules for catching and selling the coveted sea creatures are difficult to control and the high prices attract numerous criminals. But nobody wants to talk openly about this “ghost trade”. A current study funded by the European Union comes to the conclusion that precious corals worth several million euros are smuggled out of the Mediterranean every year — and the coasts of North Africa and Southern Italy are considered the most important hubs of the illegal business.
An insider, Salah Bjaoui, is willing to talk. Bjaoui himself was a coral diver for a long time — always legally, he claims. He's too old for that now. However, he still has a boat that he makes available to other divers. "Of course, there is also a lot of poaching and that presents us with huge problems," he explains. “If 10 kilos of coral grow on a rock, the entire habitat around it will be destroyed by illegal, mechanical trapping. Nine kilos of coral are lost and only one kilo is captured in the end.”
But this problem of poaching of corals is also taking place in neighboring Algeria, especially in the regions of Annaba and El Kala, where many corals are poached illegally. In some places, the red coral, which is commonly referred to locally as blood of the bull, is already threatened with extinction. The town of El Kala is called the capital of coral in Algeria. The absence of a legal coral industry in Algeria for many years has led to poaching in eastern Algerian waters, and a thriving smuggling business. Hundreds of kilos of coral have been seized by Algerian security forces, including in 2020, when Algerian police seized a vehicle transporting red corals and ecstasy tablets from the region of Annaba.
Although red coral can fetch thousands of euros per kilo, when it is poached and smuggled, the price decreases vastly. In Algeria, poachers are known to have sold raw coral for 1000 euros (140,000 Algerian dinars). If it was traded legally, this same catch would have been valued between 7,000 to 9,000 euros (100,000,000 – 1,400,000 dinars), according to a statement made by Nacer Ouabri, director of fisheries, El Taref. Many poaching divers have died.
In 2021, Algeria moved to partially legalize the harvesting of red corals to six tons a year for next five years only, after which the moratorium shall be reinstated, as a means of combatting the high prevalence of poaching activities.
Once poached from the Eastern waters of Algeria, red coral is known to be smuggled first through the Algerian-Tunisian borders, and then all over the world via the Tunisian ports of Bizerte and Tunis, in Tunisia. An estimated 80% of Algeria’s fished red coral is illegally exported to Europe and around three tons are smuggled annually from Algeria to be sold in Torre del Greco near Naples in Italy, according to Abdelkader Abderrahmane, senior researcher, West Africa Regional Organized Crime Observatory. Demand is booming, especially in southern Europe and Asia.
At the destination, it is then very difficult to trace the real origin.
“Today, coral is almost like cocaine,” Bjaoui laments.
“Not long ago they caught an Italian man with a boat who was illegally bringing the corals to Italy. Everyone knows that this smuggling takes place here," he adds.
Fight against the black market
Tunisian Coast Guard officials confirm that precious coral smuggling has become a serious problem in the region over the years. However, they say there are in the process of fighting the problem more and more efficiently and regularly search suspicious boats. Three years ago, the authorities were able to uncover a network of Algerians, Tunisians and Southern Europeans who smuggled precious corals worth millions of euros around the world. "The classic route runs via Italy, and from there the goods are often transported on to countries like India," explains the regional head of the coast guard, Adam Ben Arafa.
As there is no way to certify that the coral was collected legally, the very traceability of the trade remains a huge concern for the whole of the Mediterranean, not just North Africa. There are no certificates of origin attached to every coral (colony), in which the production area is consistently disclosed at every stage, from the time the colony is landed and sold as raw material until it finally reaches the store as a finished product.
On the other side of the Mediterranean, in Italy, the problem of illegal trade in precious corals is being taken increasingly seriously. Since 1805, Torre del Greco, located at the gates of the southern Italian port city of Naples, is the center of the red coral processing and manufacturing industry, where the species is commonly referred to as the red coral of commerce. The small town is considered the unofficial world capital of the coral trade. Numerous traditional, family-run companies produce high-quality jewelry from raw corals here, and supply top international brands such as Gucci and Bulgari.
Business is doing better than it has for a long time, because precious corals have been back in fashion among many luxury jeweler designers. Local businesspeople say that this is also due to the fact that many of the traditional companies have increasingly devoted themselves to topics such as environmental protection and sustainability in recent years.
“Many of the companies here are older than 100 years. It's clear that we want our business to continue," says Maria De Simone from the traditional company De Simone. “And that can only work if you focus on sustainability.”
"A kind of war"
However, also in Torre del Greco, very few people want to talk openly about the black market in precious corals — probably for fear that negative headlines could affect the good business. An exception is Miko Cataldo. His family business, which sells marine products, has also existed for generations and he too is benefiting from the current mood, a gold rush mood for the industry. Precious corals are currently not only in demand as pieces of jewelry; in many Asian countries, they are also needed for lotions and other beauty products, because in some cultures they are said to have health-promoting effects.
International trade represents an important element of the sustainable management of red coral. Although the 2019 National Red Coral Management Plan incorporates the will of the operators of Torre del Greco to guarantee the sustainability and safeguard of red corals, the difficulties in traceability of catch remain a widespread concern across the Mediterranean.
Some local businesses are taking a firm stand. “We fight the problem of illegal dealers every day. They just want to make money — without the necessary documents and evidence," explains Cataldo. Criminals have threatened him in his shop because he has had the courage to take action against them. "It's a kind of war that we're waging here," he says. According to the entrepreneur, the police are taking the problem increasingly seriously. "But the criminals always find new ways." He says at the moment they are increasingly trying to smuggle the goods through Spain and France before they reach the Italian hubs.
The history of red coral is intertwined with the ongoing development of Mediterranean civilization from East to West, for at least 2000 years. Since the 1800s, its fishery reached an industrial scale and today, safeguarding this species for coming centuries has come to a critical crossroads. Without clear steps to eradicate poaching, managing smuggling routes, improving traceability and establishing permanent sanctuaries of significant size all around the Mediterranean, the future of red coral remains perilous.
Tunisian artisan Mourad Arfaoui is certain that the entire problem of the illegal coral trade ultimately has one simple root cause: human greed for profit. “Red corals, like many other species, are threatened because we don't give them time to develop. We have forgotten how to be patient and appreciate the richness of the sea,” says Arfaoui. More and more often he thinks about a time after the coral business. Maybe he'll start working with olive wood. He's not worried about himself — he's worried about the future of precious corals.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in DW on 28 February 2023; this version has been adapted by EJN's Mediterranean Media Initiative.
Banner image: A shop owner showing jewelry made of red corals in Tabarka, Tunisa, 2023 / Credit: Jan-Philipp Scholz for DW.