Re-shifting the ecological baseline for the overexploited Mediterranean red coral

Garrabou, Joaquim
Sala, E.
Linares, Cristina
Ledoux, Jean-Baptiste
Montero Serra, I.
Dominici, J.M.
Kipson, Silvija
Teixidó, Núria
Kersting, D.K.
Harmelin, J.G.
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Overexploitation leads to the ecological extinction of many oceanic species. The depletion of historical abundances of large animals, such as whales and sea turtles, is well known. However, the magnitude of the historical overfishing of exploited invertebrates is unclear. The lack of rigorous baseline data limits the implementation of efficient management and conservation plans in the marine realm. The precious Mediterranean red coral Corallium rubrum has been intensively exploited since antiquity for its use in jewellery. It shows dramatic signs of overexploitation, with no untouched populations known in shallow waters. Here, we report the discovery of an exceptional red coral population from a previously unexplored shallow underwater cave in Corsica (France) harbouring the largest biomass (by more than 100-fold) reported to date in the Mediterranean. Our findings challenge current assumptions on the pristine state of this emblematic species. Our results suggest that, before intense exploitation, red coral lived in relatively high-density populations with a large proportion of centuries-old colonies, even at very shallow depths. We call for the re-evaluation of the baseline for red coral and question the sustainability of the exploitation of a species that is still common but ecologically (functionally) extinct and in a trajectory of further decline ​
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