Protected coral species

Corals are invertebrate animals belonging to the phylum Cnidaria (from the Greek word 'Cnidos' meaning stinging nettle). There are five main classes of Cnidaria: Anthozoa, Hydrozoa, Cubozoa, Scyphozoa and Staurozoa.

Species referred to as corals occur within in the Anthozoa and Hydrozoa. They can exist as individuals or in colonies. Many secrete calcium carbonate external skeletons.

Red coral. Photo: Steve Wing. DOC USE ONLY.
Red coral

What are corals?

Corals are invertebrate animals belonging to the phylum Cnidaria (from the Greek word 'Cnidos' meaning stinging nettle). There are five main classes of Cnidaria:

  • Anthozoa - true corals, sea anemones and sea pens
  • Hydrozoa - hydroids, siphonophores and many medusae (jellyfishes)
  • Cubozoa - box jellyfishes (‘sea wasps’ and Irukandji)
  • Scyphozoa - true jellyfishes
  • Staurozoa - stalked jellyfishes

Blue maomao and Cabbage coral. Photo: James Marsden.
Blue maomao and cabbage coral

Species referred to as corals occur within in the Anthozoa and Hydrozoa. They can exist as individuals or in colonies. Many secrete calcium carbonate external skeletons.

Black corals

Black corals belong to the order Antipatharia within the Anthozoa. They are named for the dark colour of their hard proteinaceous skeletons. When alive the skeleton is covered by living tissue and bears tiny polyps. The tissue covering the skeleton can be variously coloured. Consequently living black coral colonies do not look black. For example, Antipathes fiordensis typically appears white when alive. Colonies of black coral can look like trees, whips, fans or feathers. Some species may live for hundreds of years, and may grow over three metres tall.

About 58 black coral species are known in New Zealand waters. Although their depth and geographic distributions have not been analysed in detail most appear to live between 200 and 1000m depth. Divers are most likely to encounter black corals below 40m depth on offshore reefs in northern New Zealand. In Fiordland and parts of Port Pegasus, Stewart Island, Antipathes fiordensis may occur as shallow as 10m depth.  Several subtropical species are found on shallow reefs at the Kermadec Islands.

Red corals

Although a variety of corals are red or reddish in colour, the species formally known as red corals are members of the order Anthoathecatae (hydrocorals or stylasterid corals) within the Hydrozoa. The skeletons of hydrocorals are distinguished from those of stony corals by generally being much smaller, less robust, and minutely porous and pitted with small holes for the polyps. These holes lack the distinctive vertical radial partitions (septa) that characterise stony corals.

New Zealand’s hydrocoral fauna is one of the most diverse in the world, and 80% of the more than 50 species that live here are endemic. The most familiar species is the native red coral Errina novaezelandiae (family Stylasteridae), which may be encountered in relatively shallow water (30-50m depth) in Fiordland. Concentrations of Errina species have been reported in deepwater around the Chatham Islands and off the West Coast in the South Island.

Threats 

Black coral. Photo: Steve Wing.
Black coral

Trawling and dredging adversely affect deepwater corals and coral habitats. Recovery from this type of disturbance is likely to take decades and possibly hundreds of years due to the very slow growth rates of deepwater species.

Suspension of sediments by trawls may also smother coral larvae and settlement surfaces. In shallower water black and red corals are vulnerable to damage by anchors, rock lobster pots, droplines, careless divers and collectors.

Increased marine sedimentation caused by catchment development can also damage coral larvae and smother settlement surfaces as well as established colonies. Several species of snake star can be found living commensally on the branches of black corals. These play an important role in cleaning the colony and preventing them being overgrown by other organisms.

DOC's work 

Diver, Black coral and Snakestars.
Diver with black coral

All black (order Antipatharia) and red corals (family Stylasteridae) occurring within New Zealand’s Territorial Sea and Exclusive Economic Zone are strictly protected under the Wildlife Act 1953.

It is illegal to deliberately collect or damage these species. All black and red corals accidentally brought to the surface (e.g. on or in fishing gear, or fouled by anchors) must be immediately returned to the sea.

All species in the order Scleractinia (stony or true corals), order Antipatharia and family Stylasteridae are listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). These species may not be imported or brought into New Zealand without an export permit from the country of origin. The Department of Conservation is the New Zealand CITES authority.

You can help

Plate coral and diver. Photo: Rodger Grace.
Plate coral and diver

You can help maintain healthy coral communities by:

  • not anchoring or dredging in areas known to support corals
  • using recognised anchorages and moorings in places such as Fiordland and the Poor Knights Islands
  • by taking care not to inadvertently damage or destroy corals with your fins, tank or hoses when scuba diving. Divers should not touch living coral colonies or remove other organisms living amongst the branches. 

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Contacts

DOC's 24 hour emergency hotline:

0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468)

Call to report sick or injured wildlife, and whale or dolphin strandings.