Coralmania by Eric Borneman

Additional Commentary on Dyed Corals

I apologize for not immediately continuing the series on coral nutrition, but Anthony Calfo's article in this issue prompts me to write on another subject this month. I'd like to thank Anthony for writing an informative article on this most disturbing recent trend to artificially dye corals. I feel it an important enough issue to warrant a second commentary on the subject. It amazes me that anyone would feel that the naturally glorious colors already present in corals and coral reef organisms should need to be enhanced.

The majority of the dyed corals entering the market began appearing more prolifically late in 2001 and originated in Indonesia. However, soon after the first reports began trickling in of dyed Sinularia and Turbinaria, in early 2002, I was unfortunate enough to have first hand (and unintentional) experience with a dyed coral. This time, its origin was Fiji, and many other reports of dyed Fijian corals, including ones not commonly exported from Indonesia, are now confirmed. Perhaps more disturbing is what I have ascertained may be an ulterior motivation for using dye in Fiji. The corals appear to be totally or partially bleached, and would otherwise be unsellable.

Indonesian dyed corals seemed to be enhanced to command either higher prices or to make them more desirable or attractive. The Indonesians are, as a culture, fond of bright colors, and it shows in their clothes and even their food! Being surrounded by the bright colors of nature both on land and sea, it is hardly surprising, and I rather suspect that deception is not always the primary motivation for this practice. It may very well be that those involved feel they are doing a service in the practice.

Contrast the brightly colored natural fruits with the artificially colored sweets on this Indonesian airline meal! It might not be a coincidence that the pink layer of the agar treat is almost the same shade as our pink corals!

In Fiji, however, I feel the practice is clearly deceptive. Once again, Fiji has undergone significant bleaching events and many corals being cultured and collected have also bleached. This is truly an unfortunate predicament for those involved in the trade. However, the introduction of artificial colorants to mask a bleached coral and make it marketable is a practice that must not continue.

I ordered an orange morph of a Lobophyllia - an unusual, but by no means impossible, color morph. Lobophyllia generally are very hardy and transport well. However, this specimen arrived with tissue that appeared grossly swollen and abnormal. I suspected significant damage that appeared necrotic, and foresaw an impending jelly-type infection. I opted to treat the coral, and placed it in a quarantine tank with newly made seawater. Within an hour, the water had a distinctive orange tint, and by 12 hours the tank appeared as in the photo below.

I changed the water several times over several days, and once the dye was eliminated from the tissues, it was apparent that the coral was clearly severely bleached. It is possible that the dye caused the bleaching prior to obtaining the coral, but logic would dictate otherwise. The coral is still alive, but its health has remained compromised and has been very sensitive to even slight aquarium water perturbations.  

As to dyed corals, I personally collected threads and documented cases of dyed corals being sold from aquarists and stores across the country. I wrote a letter to the US Coral Reef Task Force, AMDA, Marine Aquarium Council, and seven separate persons in the Indonesian government and the coral collecting group AKKII about this issue. I have received responses from USFWS, NMFS, AKKII and other organizations in response, all saying that they would take steps to correct the problem. I have included some of the letters of response at the end of this article.

In terms of buying livestock from any source, certain corals are going to be wild collected. There are no alternatives. Similarly, there is no one source of dyed corals, and Indonesia recognizes that certain wholesalers, though only a few, may be participating in this practice. However, the operators of the facilities are apparently not doing the dying, and may not be knowledgeable enough to even know or recognize corals from collectors or middlemen that are dyed. Thus, orders are placed and corals are sent. No store ordering corals from Indonesia, and perhaps now even Fiji, will necessarily be assured of not receiving dyed corals. Unless a coral is aquacultured or collected from a known source, every store that sells wild collected corals will potentially be a source of dyed corals.

Given that the vast majority of corals collected for the aquarium trade are from Fiji and Indonesia, both now known to be sources of dyed corals, should these countries be economically boycotted? I don't believe so, and I am not sure that not supporting stores that may have dyed corals is a proper response. However, it is unquestionably the case that at least some suppliers, from exporter to retailer, are knowingly and intentionally purchasing and supplying dyed corals. For those cases, non-cooperative non-support may be a good choice. For others, making sure to inform the facility that the coral is dyed, and explaining the reasons why you don't approve is a good way to voice concern and dissatisfaction. Urging the facility to do the same to the supplier "upstream" is also a good idea. Education is the key to eliminating this practice, especially when coupled with ethical and economically compelling reasons.   

As to the survival and health of dyed corals, I cannot say what the true effects the dyes have on coral tissue. To be able to investigate their effect on animal survival and health, it would be very helpful to know what are the dyes being used. Some may be non-toxic, at least some are clearly water soluble, and may be relatively innocuous - just gaudy and annoying! However, there is also a very real possibility that the dyes are directly toxic or indirectly causing stress, distress, and compromising the health of the treated corals. Calfo's thoughts and proposed effects of dye are possible, if not likely, to be true.

It appears that some corals tolerate being dyed better than others. For some, it appears that the dye is actively removed from the tissues and transported out of the coral through solenia or gastrovascular canals (Figure 3). For others, signs indicative of stress exist, including tissue recession, poor feeding response, poor polyp expansion, and increased secretion of mucus. In some cases, death appears to occur as result of the dye. However, studies would need to be done to be sure that mortality could indeed be attributed to the dye, either directly or indirectly.

In conclusion, I urge anyone seeing such corals to be pro-active and vocal in expressing their concern and dissatisfaction with the practice. Obviously, no one should intentionally purchase a dyed coral, as also mentioned and supported by Calfo (this issue). I would also welcome all reports and documentation of this practice wherever seen so that I can perhaps continue to use channels of inquiry and within trade groups and interested parties to help stop the practice. If you are able to help in this regard, the following information will be helpful, if not required, to be useful in supportive evidence of the practice:

1. Date
2. Coral type - genus level, species if possible
3. Color of dye
4. How many present
5. Name, address, phone number and contact at the facility
6. Photos, if possible
7. Supplier of facility
8. Country of origin for the specimen, if known

Furthermore, I would also request any reports and documentation of dyed corals that have been unintentionally purchased and are being cared for by an aquarist be sent to me. Particularly useful, in addition to the information above, would be:

1. Length of time since purchase
2. Length of time until dye is lost from the tissue (if ever)
3. General tank information
4. Obvious changes in behavior, health, or survival of the dyed coral or others in the tank
5. If the tissue is bleached or normally pigmented once the dye is lost
6. If there are any measured, observed, or anecdotal long-term consequences from the dye
7. Any other notable remarks, measurements, or photos

Appendix 1.

Below are some of the letters of response I have received regarding my inquiries into the practice of dyed corals in the aquarium trade. I have edited some of them for relevant content and omitted personal issues.

Response 1.

Dear Eric,

Thank you for your e-mail to AKKII. I really appreciate about your progress and your concern about coral trade. As Association for Industry, we agree with your response about artificial colors for coral. I'm very sure that artificial color can be affected to health of coral. I have been forward your e-mail to AKKII's member and remainder to them about this practice. Do you know the name of company which do this practice?. I just suggest that this matter can be one of part from certification development by MAC to ensure sustainable trade in the world.

Bye the way, when you will go to Indonesia again, I hope we can continue our work in Spermonde with Andy and others.

Regards, - name omitted -

Indonesian Coral Shell and Ornamental Fish Association (AKKII)

Response 2.

Dear Mr Eric Borneman,

I am - name omitted - from - company name omitted -, an Indonesian exporter that is also one of AKKII members. I read your email to AKKII about the malpractice (yellow and pink dyes) conducted by some Indonesian exporters, which affect coral survivability and create customers distrust. I am sorry to hear that.

When money is the basic reason of such a practice, I do not know what to say. To tell the truth, I do not know what companies involved, but not all of Indonesian exporters are bad boys like that of course. I assure that - company name omitted - never practice it. If you still remember your coming to our farm, you will get in your mind about our capacity.

We have stated our commitment to MAC to maintain sustainable based of coral trade to prove our environmental concern. But the practice will absolutely give Indonesian negative impression abroad, and it also affect other Indonesian exporters. Indonesia has been badly recognized for its cyanide - used fishing, something we try to rehabilitate. It can be useless due to the practice. That is what they don't think and care about

At this moment, Indonesia is developing its management plan of coral and marine ornamental fishes trade through Indonesian Coral Reef Working Group, involving AKKII, MAC, WWF, Indonesian NGOs, governments, etc. It includes monitoring systems. In order to minimize the practice, capable monitoring system is required, and it is being developed. I believe AKKII will take a good step to address this issue, cause it is not easy to hold the Indonesian "bad boys".

This is my personal opinion, and it is nice to be able to contact you

Thank you,

Yours sincerely,

- name omitted -

Response 3.


I am AKKII representative for the USA, my name is - name omitted -.
Thank you for informing us about dyed corals. I have forwarded your letter to AKKII main office in Jakarta, Indonesia for follow up.

Personally, I know that this is the work of only one or two irresponsible exporters from Jakarta. If possible please provide us with the product list offerred that include the dyed coral. So, AKKII may have proof to resolve the matter.

And also I was told that some operator in LA actually dyeing a large number of these said corals in order to cut mortality compare to if have to ship from Jakarta. From what I have been told, the dye may bleach out during the shipment effecting water quality inside the bag and therefore may kill the animal being shipped.

Again we need further investigation who actually doing this practice both in Jakarta and Los Angeles.

Best regards,

- name and company name omitted -

Appendix 2.

Photos of dyed corals from threads in The Coral Forum and other forums on Reef Central. These photos, like those used in Calfo's (this issue), are provided to help aquarists recognize artificially colored corals.

Figure 1: Photo of dyed Heliofungia actiniformis from Reef Central member djheywood. Photo courtesy of Brian Amoroso.


Figure 2: Photo of dyed Goniopora sp. by Reef Central member kennerd. Photo courtesy of Ken O'Brien.


Figure 3: Photo of dyed Nephthea sp. by Reef Central member coralmorphian. Photo courtesy of Mitchell Brown.


Figure 4: Photo of dyed Sinularia sp. by Reef Central member Blithe. Photo courtesy of Blithe Hoffman.


Figure 5: Photo of dyed Sinularia sp. by Reef Central member coralmorphian. Photo courtesy of Mitchell Brown.


Figure 6: Photo of dyed Sinularia sp. by Reef Central member dc. Photo courtesy of Debi Coughlin.


If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.

Reefkeeping Magazine™ Reef Central, LLC-Copyright © 2008

Additional Commentary on Dyed Corals by Eric Borneman -