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

He's now busy transplanting 50,000 pieces of coral from his nursery to the Florida Reef Tract, the world's third-largest coral reef ecosystem, which spans from the Dry Tortugas to Martin County. He hopes his aquaculture approach and do-whatever-it-takes mentality can alleviate at least some of the damage, both here and abroad.

"One of our passions would be to go into Southeast Asia and work with some of these coral exporters [on a nonprofit basis]," he says. "There's no reason why all these people who are harvesting and exporting wild corals couldn't be growing them. The writing is on the wall. There's going to be more and more restrictions on the harvest and trade of wild corals and more controversy. If I was in the business, I would be very worried."


Lunz and the federal agents working on the case of the seized coral examined the documents that had arrived with the shipment. Paperwork indicated that the coral had come from the Solomon Islands, an island nation in the South Pacific between Hawaii and Australia. There, the average person makes only $1,350 a year, and some local divers scrape together a living by pulling coral off nearby reefs.

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.

Coral changes hands about five times between the ocean floor and a Florida tourist trap. Harvesters in the Pacific sell it to their local exporters, who pack up big shipments for sale to foreign markets. In the United States, there are a few scattered importers who buy these large shipments of coral skeletons. The importers in turn sell to wholesalers — again, there are just a few — who fashion coral into necklaces, lamps, and trinkets. From the wholesalers, coral makes its way to curio shops, jewelry stores, and design firms, where it is sold at retail prices.

Because coral is increasingly imperiled, the worldwide trade is supposed to be highly regulated. Shipments need to be properly marked and accompanied by permits as they move through ports around the world. The species that landed in front of Lunz were protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, more commonly known as CITES. This agreement gives stony coral the same protected status as the great white shark and the Bornean peacock pheasant — not yet endangered but close.

In countries that permit the export of coral, such as the Solomon Islands, scientists are supposed to determine whether coral harvesting will damage the species or the environment. If the all-clear is given, countries can issue permits to exporters, who are supposed to include with each shipment a detailed list of which species are being sold so authorities can monitor the populations. When a container of coral gets to the U.S., the regulatory burden shifts to customs and federal wildlife officials. They either trust the information on the permits or, when in doubt, call in experts like Lunz.

When Lunz encountered that initial shipment in the summer of 2010, authorities weren't sure if it was just an accident that half the goods had been mislabeled or whether there was criminal intent. But then over two years, at least four more shipments containing misidentified coral arrived in the U.S. — all from the same shipper — stoking suspicion and sparking the ongoing federal investigation.

This isn't the first time coral shipments have come under investigation. U.S. courts handed down their first felony conviction for illegal coral trafficking in 1999, to Petros Leventis, a Florida man who got 18 months in jail and two years' probation for importing coral from the Philippines, which had banned the sale of its coral decades ago. A U.S. law called the Lacey Act makes it illegal to handle wildlife collected in violation of other countries' laws.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice prosecuted a German national for shipping 40 tons of coral from the Philippines to Portland, Oregon. In 2011, officials in Cebu, Philippines, confiscated 1.4 tons of poached coral bound for export. Weeks later, an additional 440 skeletons were seized in the same city.

One of the largest coral-smuggling cases is working its way through U.S. courts. In October 2011, a Virgin Islands-based company called GEM Manufacturing pleaded guilty to seven counts of smuggling black coral. GEM is the parent company of Bernard K. Passman, the world's premier supplier of black coral jewelry. Presidents and royal families have commissioned work from his company. He died several years ago, but his namesake company is still operating under GEM's umbrella, with boutiques in Las Vegas, Maui, and St. Thomas.

Investigators found that GEM ordered the slow-growing black coral from a Taiwanese couple. The orders were then forwarded to mainland China, where containers were packed, labeled as plasticware, and sent to St. Thomas, a U.S. territory. After being busted, GEM was ordered to hand over nearly 14,000 pounds of raw black coral — representing presumably millions of years of collective growth — and pay $4.5 million in fines.

Scientists like Lunz are worried that the global demand for coral — legal and illegal — is hastening the death of reefs around the world. "There are so many forces acting against coral reefs right now," she says. "For us to still be harvesting coral for the sake of having it on a bookshelf is outrageous at this point. It's just sad."


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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.

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

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!

Jf
Jf

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

richyoung
richyoung

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

 
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