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

While there's enough coral in the ocean for Melissas, he says that other people shouldn't import or export it because "it's a fragile ecosystem that needs to not be messed with." Although his website sells lamps made from coral for $375 each and eight-piece assorted coral collections for $368, he points the finger at a curio wholesaler in Texas that he says supplies to Walmart and Michaels, the retail craft chain. They're doing the real damage, he implies, going on to state that there "must be some ethical limits to the dollar bill."

Asked about the seized coral from the Solomon Islands, Melissas looks uneasy at first. His wife wanders into the kitchen and, seemingly sensing the subject has been broached, comments that it's good that New Times is recording the interview. Melissas says he never imports coral directly but admits that he buys "from people who import from there," though he won't identify those people. "If the price was right, I bought it. I wasn't the only one buying it."

Melissas spews disgust for Fish and Wildlife's investigation. It took about eight people to pull that batch of coral from the water, he says, and it was perfectly fine because shipping channels were being cut through the area and the coral was being reseeded (sources familiar with the investigation say this is doubtful given the volume of coral and species targeted for collection).

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.

Most important, he says, there was no intentional mislabeling of the coral. Rather, overzealous inspectors "hyped it to the max" to appear as though they had made a big bust.

"A piece of lace coral looks a little bit like a piece of bird's-nest coral," he says. "And these are uneducated island people, almost Aborigines, packaging it up. And you're expecting them to know [how to label it?]"

Melissas claims that other containers, packed with the same species and labeled the same exact way as the July 2010 shipment, have passed through different ports without any hindrance.

His face contorts in an exaggerated expression of alarm when he's told that the coral seized in July 2010 at the Port of Tampa has an estimated worth of $500,000 to $1 million. Lowering his head so that his mouth is positioned an inch from a tape recorder, he booms, "They lied. They lied!" His voice blasts through the kitchen. "Fish and Wildlife definitely threw up on the American public when they said it was worth that much... A 40-foot semi, completely full, average price is 18 grand. My Greek cross to God."

Melissas raises his caterpillar eyebrows, pats his back pocket, and likens the $1 million appraisal to cops who exaggerate a weed bust by appraising it at street value, not its wholesale price. (Sources familiar with the ongoing investigation readily admit that some of the shipments were accompanied by invoices that were about $30,000 for a full container; the $500,000 to $1 million estimate is the retail value, they say.)

"Coral is not expensive, because it is plentiful — especially corals that are dying to begin with," he says. "There's a company in California that doesn't lose one piece of coral, and they bring in a 40-footer every 30 days... I could never buy all the coral offered to me."


Whether a container of coral is worth $18,000 or $1 million seems like petty quibbling when one considers that it could soon be extinct. Although Melissas may be accustomed to bulk purchases of dead coral, scientists are not, and most are dismayed when told about the shipments in Tampa.

Lunz is still heartbroken about the quantity of coral she has inspected over the past two years. After the federal investigation wraps up, she intends to publish a scientific paper detailing the extent of ecological destruction represented by these shipments.

"The curio trade is alive and well, and I don't think people, scientists included, realize the magnitude of it," Lunz says. "From my scientific, expert opinion, I'm seeing a trade... that may no longer be sustainable."

As for that first giant batch of coral that she inspected, it took two tractor-trailers to move the seized portion to Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, where it remains today. There are still moldy boxes bearing the logo of SolBrew, a lager from the Solomon Islands, wrapped around a few of the skeletons. A dead lizard and dust have replaced the dead starfish and crabs. Some of the colonies are neatly packaged in large Tupperware-like bins, some are strewn across a table, and a few are being cleaned so they can be used for coral-education efforts. So much coral was sent to the university that a small team of graduate students had to be assembled to sort through and organize it.

And still, that's only one-half of one shipment to one port.

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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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