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

George Melissas is the king of curio. He reigns over an empire built on coral colonies, scallop shells, alligator heads, and shark jaws. He's made a small fortune on starfish dyed blue, crabs mounted to coconuts, seashell wind chimes, and other nautical tidbits sold in bulk.

His home in the secluded, luxurious Gulf Coast town of Boca Grande — where there's a $5 toll to cross the one causeway in and out of town — is easy to recognize. Down the quiet, breezy side street a few hundred yards from the beach, it's the home with a long display of maroon coral, giant clams, assorted shells, and a well-placed vintage anchor. The electric gate featuring a Greek key pattern gives way to another, waist-high stack of coral, stone, and shells that surrounds a front-yard pool. At the bottom of the porch, near the candy-apple-red Corvette, is an even larger display of coral and shells, a mermaid statue topping this one.

Melissas is the founder and CEO of Shell Horizons, a Clearwater-based company that claims on its website to be the "largest wholesaler of seashells and seashell products." The balding 57-year-old, who looks like a slightly taller, slightly slimmer Danny DeVito, with a thin gray mustache, says he's not sure if he's actually the largest wholesaler; it just sounds good.

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.

A proclivity for profiting from the sea lingers in his genetic composition.

"My grandparents were in the sponge industry in Greece," he says, leaning over his kitchen counter. He's wearing striped shorts, a buttoned-down tan shirt, and a slender black coral necklace with an expensive-looking sheen. "They came here from Greece [in the early 1900s], and they came here because there was a blight on sponges in the Mediterranean at the time. It was like a red tide."

Before the advent of cheap synthetic materials, people used natural sponges harvested from the sea, and sales of them were good. The Mediterranean blight was like a mini potato famine in the sense that it drove a tight-knit ethnic community to the shores of Florida's Gulf Coast to chase sponges. Scuba gear had yet to be invented; divers wore cumbersome lead boots and metal helmets. "Both my grandfathers had the bends and died of the bends," Melissas says. "They gave their life to the sea."

This risk-taking, moneymaking, fresh-off-the-boat subculture inspired Hollywood films such as 1953's Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, featuring Robert Wagner as "Mike Petrakis," the elder, sexier half of a Greek father-son sponge-diving team in Florida. An uncle of Melissas' starred in the film.

As a kid, Melissas worked in warehouses in Tarpon Springs, baling bundles of sponges and packing them in burlap bags to be shipped around the world. "Greeks work; they don't collect welfare," he barks. "It wasn't a fun job, but it was something that was family."

He discovered that the occasional oyster shell on the side of a sponge could be plucked, cleaned, and sold for a few cents to the tourists who frequented restaurants owned by his family. By the time he was a teenager, Melissas was buying crates of curios at wholesale prices from a shop in Fort Myers. He fashioned the shells into trinkets and centerpieces to sell at a restaurant where he waited tables.

Tired of dealing with a middleman, Melissas decided at age 17 to go directly to the source. It was a risky move. He blew his life savings on a plane ticket to the Philippines, much to his father's dismay. "We're trying to get away from what your grandfathers did and the stinking packaging houses. Who's gonna buy shells?" he recalls his dad lamenting.

The wholesaler in the Philippines expected to meet a 50-year-old businessman, not a brash teenager running a shop in his parents' backyard with barely enough money to make it back to the U.S. This young-and-dumb approach struck a chord of sympathy, compelling the wholesaler to give Melissas a batch of Pacific shells and 90 days to sell what he could.

Dead sea life has treated Melissas well in the four decades since that inaugural trip. He's well-off and well-traveled and says he owns a bone-fishing club in the Bahamas and has a partnership with a factory in the Philippines.

Melissas doesn't conceal his disdain for his critics. He launches into tirades against Tony Cruz, a Filipino news correspondent who has accused Melissas of smuggling coral from the Philippines; and Anna Oposa, a Filipina activist who went before the Philippines Senate in 2011 to levy allegations that Shell Horizons had poached protected coral from the country's waters. Melissas stresses that he was never charged and that the allegations are "totally false," based on outdated, 1970s pictures of free divers dismantling a reef that were once posted on his website.

"For environmentalists, it's broccoli or nothing," he says. "The environmentalists are concerned about everything. They're weirder than Michael Jackson."

Melissas insists that there's plenty of coral left in the sea and that scientists are exaggerating news of reef decline to secure funding. "Take the square footage of all the coral in the world and it's three times the size of the United States," he says. (The World Resource Institute, meanwhile, estimates the total area covered by coral reefs is "roughly equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom.") If coral is so rare, Melissas asks, why is he paying the same price for it that he was back in the 1980s?

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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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