The World's Coral Reefs Are Being Decimated, All for a Few Gaudy Trinkets

The World's Coral Reefs Are Being Decimated, All for a Few Gaudy Trinkets

Kate Lunz didn't know what to expect as she piloted her white Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission truck to the Port of Tampa in July 2010. The day before, customs authorities had called the 32-year-old, PhD-toting marine biologist and asked her to inspect the contents of two 40-foot shipping containers that had been sent from the Solomon Islands and pulled for investigation.

This marked the first time Lunz had been summoned to the port to do her job. To look official, she wore her white FWC shirt, pulled back her short blond hair, and packed an employee badge, a professional accouterment she rarely used. A federal escort met Lunz at the port's entry and led her past rotund oil tanks and looming smokestacks toward a secure Customs and Border Protection warehouse the size of a football field. Lunz walked inside to find piles of what appeared to be white rubble wrapped in damp beer boxes and foreign newspapers. She snapped on a surgical mask to stave off the stench of mold and dust and started surveying the haul.

The sight devastated Lunz. The rubble was actually a giant batch of stony coral — an order scientifically known as Scleractinia — an exceptionally fragile animal that's vital to the health of the world's oceans. Thousands of pieces had been plundered from the South Pacific and shipped halfway around the world to be cleaned, turned into tourist trinkets, and sold down the coast of Florida at a staggering markup.

Ken Nedimyer of the Coral Restoration Foundation grows coral in an underwater nursery in Key Largo.
Tim Grollimund
Ken Nedimyer of the Coral Restoration Foundation grows coral in an underwater nursery in Key Largo.
Divers check on corals transplanted from a nursery to the Florida Reef Tract.
Tim Grollimund
Divers check on corals transplanted from a nursery to the Florida Reef Tract.

"Heartbreaking," Lunz says. "It made my stomach sink."

They were spectacular specimens. Some looked like inverted jellyfish turned to stone; others were hardened, porous blobs of a deep-maroon hue. Lifeless starfish and expired crabs still dangled from the skeletons, aquatic detritus indicating that the coral had been part of a thriving reef.

Curious warehouse workers paused as they strolled by and asked if this discovery was a bad thing. Yes, Lunz explained, it was a terrible thing.

Over the next three days, Lunz and a handful of colleagues sorted the coral piece by piece to ensure that the species listed on the boxes matched the species listed on the shipping documents. Only about half the shipment had been labeled accurately. Agents seized that mislabeled half and estimated it to be worth upward of a million bucks. "The sheer magnitude of this shipment was just overwhelming," Lunz says. "This was a substantial part of a reef."

Over the next two years, four more suspicious shipments — of similar magnitude and similarly mislabeled — would arrive in U.S. ports, with the most recent having come to Tampa earlier this year. Lunz was called in to inspect each shipment, and each resulted in the seizure of misidentified coral.

The former reef material was bound for the curio trade, an off-the-radar market that spans from low-end, roadside shell shops to posh interior-design companies. The shipping containers and the repeated pattern of mislabeled coral are now at the center of a federal investigation being led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that could result in criminal charges and stiff financial penalties against the people who were importing it. Sources familiar with the ongoing investigation would not reveal the names of those involved but say that the same Solomon Islands-based company exported all of the containers to several American importers.

"Every time I walk into that warehouse at the Port of Tampa, I'm flabbergasted by the size of the shipment," Lunz says. "I'm seeing shipments of coral in such large quantities that it's potentially devastating entire reefs."


Coral has a PR problem. It's not cute, so the public isn't fired up about saving it. Mounds of it piled in a warehouse don't stir the same visceral reaction as a dead rhino with its face gutted out for its horn or a bulldozer plowing through the Amazon. Most people don't even know coral is an animal. But corals hunt, eat, poop, and have sex. They even have huge orgies. For many species, once a year, shortly after sunset on the night of a full moon, masses of coral simultaneously release sacs of reproductive cells, turning the water into a cloudy primordial soup of sperm and eggs.

"Most people think of corals as rocks or some sort of plant life," says Andrew Baker, a University of Miami marine biologist with a British accent and supple black hair. "After all, they don't swim around like an animal should, they look like they're rooted to the bottom, and they grow like plants. But the cool thing about them is that they are... close relatives of anemones and jellyfish. Corals are covered in tiny stinging cells called nematocysts, which they use to help catch their prey. When a piece of potential food wafts by, corals use their tentacles to trap it; then they sting it to death and eat it. It's rather savage, actually."

Baker gets genuinely excited when explaining that many species maintain a delicate symbiotic relationship with algae called zooxanthellae that absorb sunlight, convert it to food, and help the coral produce its calcium carbonate skeleton. Coral by itself is white; it's the zooxanthellae living on its tissue that give coral the famous hues of bright pink, purple, and orange.

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10 comments
James Marshall
James Marshall

If you read the article the coral which is so plentiful in Solomans is not even a question that it hurts the enviroment there because it does not,they are cutting a channell thru an area and letting local island natives collect and sell what they would have thrown away anyway.The Fish and Wildlife exaggerate the cost of the coral seized and lied about the value,they seized commonly mismarked coral but not coral that was illegal to import, so they can look good to there boss's so they can still keep a job.No coral is right to collect unless it is dying or being removed for a positive reason and re seeding is done to fill in the same amount taken in Solomans.Why do Tree Huggers always cry when no damage is done and no one smuggled any coral on purpose.Why not re seed Strombus Gigas -Queen Conchs back into Key West -WHY? Because the U.S. Government has Red Tape worst than any country.Why do we not have Queen Conch shells re seeded into the Keys area???Why do you hamper the people growing coral in the keys????Stop the crying eco nuts,they do nothing but collect money to yell and say false statements.When George SOROS dies then you will need to find another person to send you money to complain.Remember when the eco ship tore thru the reef in Keywest and no one ever paid a dime for fines or re seeding the huge long reef they tore out?????The eco ship destroyed more fragile coral in Florida that any imported coral from coral Islands in the south Pacific which is packed full of coral as far as the eye can see and beyond.Stop the lying you liberal fools,corals reefs are three times larger than the USA. and doing better than the horror stories you write,get out there and see for yourself.

chrism
chrism

Peace FQS9000,you jerk!

FQS9000
FQS9000

Spare me.  The Solomon Islands are destitute.  The Solomon Islands have plenty of coral and as far as they are concerned it has no value to them at all other than what it will get from Florida tourists.  Tree hugger stories like this have real victims, and it isn't the reefs, it is the Solomon Islander's children who will have no chance for a decent life because some pin head here thinks they know best what is good for everybody else.  Tree hugging morons want every wild thing in a protected park that only they can access.

The rest of us live on this planet too, and tree huggers are far from being either disinterested, smart or educated.

chrism
chrism

You sound like such an assh>>>!!!!!!

richyoung
richyoung

I have little faith that plundering the Solomon Isle's coral will in any way help any children in the Solomon Isles.  You sir, are very misinformed and should refrain from public comment unless you have something of value to contribute.  Uninformed opinions are useless.

Jf
Jf

Right On! So sick of the flea humpers thinking the resources belong only to them and everyone else stay away.

James Marshall
James Marshall

So when the U.S Government dropped the hydrogen bomb on BiKINI Island it wipped out a reef half the size of Great Barrier reef in Australia and no one asks how's it going everyone!!!Well the reef is growing back to fullest size because no more Bombs and no fertilizers and no de forestation,or condos,hotels,seawalls,and flushing toilets on the reef.The reef is huge,so big and beautiful you would freak out,people are doing great again still getting checks for the bang the U.S. dropped on them but otherwise living better than millions in U.S.The Island is now ok to live on and people are going back to settle on the island and fish on the reefs and eat shell meat and turtles and clams,ECT.This is there way of life leave them alone,you have dictated there lives enough.They use coral for footers in the base of there homes there is so much coral,eco nuts want to tell them what to do all the time-----------stop it you liberal fools-------stop it overseas also know what I mean.

FQS9000
FQS9000

So according to you the children of the Solomon Islands can go naked, hungry, uneducated and without medical services so a coral reef you'll never see can be pristine.

I bet you wouldn't take that choice for your own children.

richyoung
richyoung

 Declaring you are sized to satisfy flees is not something you should do in public.

richyoung
richyoung

If you got that from what I wrote you are truly an idiot!

If it can be can guaranteed that "the children of the solomon islesz" will benefit from plundering their resources then that is their perogative. However, I doubt that any children other than those of the alresdy wealthy are actually benefiting from this trade.

Actually, I am intelligent enough to understand what you wrote and you are an idiot!

 
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