Coral Reefs Are Being Decimated, All for a Few Gaudy Trinkets

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 began 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 shows off a piece of coral.
Tim Grollimund
Ken Nedimyer of the Coral Restoration Foundation shows off a piece of coral.
Divers check on corals that were transplanted from a nursery to the Florida Reef Tract.
Tim Grollimund
Divers check on corals that were 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 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 was labeled accurately. Agents seized the other, 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 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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19 comments
xxxriainxxx
xxxriainxxx

George Melissas is a liar and a thief and wholesale plunderer of Philippine corals, taking advantage of the weak enforcement of laws in a country like the Philippines. Millions of poor Filipinos depend on fishing in the Philippines for their livelihood and for their own daily sustenance and fish catches are dwindling no thanks to Shell Horizons and operations like theirs.

Anna
Anna

Below is part of this article which i think the writer is confused him or herself and shows little knowledge about corals.. This makes sense to what i am saying that CLEAN SEA WATER as in the South Pacific is best for coral growth and Polluted sea waters in Florida or USA kills or destroys corals.. When it rains and all the rivers runs down to the sea with all the land development wastes and polluted the sea and kills these coral animals...

In simple terms, the corals that people took out of the reefs is a finished product that these millions of coral animals built, In clean sea water, when you break the coral, every single broken pcs of coral that is dropped back into the clean sea will become a new coral because the coral animals will continue to built it again. In clean sea in the South Pacific it can only take 6 - 10 months for corals to grow from 1" to 12" for the fast growing species.

" 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."

From the above, it shows the writer of this article has done no reseach in where these corals were taken from. It also shows the writer is only doing it for economical reasons. Maybe they might financial benefits from other buyers who this new trade market is affecting their business...

Kibba
Kibba

It doesn't sound so bad if the reefs are only being decimated. That is, reduced by 10%.

Could it possibly be worse than the headline suggests?

Anna
Anna

You people do not understand,,, we have some so called scientists who sits in their locked offices and acts like they knew everything happening around the world. There has been enough evidence that sea pollution is the greatest causes of coral depletion and death. 80% of Floridas coral reef were destroyed by Human pollution of the sea.. For the South Pacific where these corals came from do not have the sea pollution that you have in Florida and other US states..

Let me educate this so scientist that wrote this un reseached piece of nonsense.. Take the sea from Miami reefs and put it in a tank and put corals inside to grow.. At the same time take the coral from the harvested reefs in the South Pacific and put into a tank to grow.. There is a difference in the sea pollution vs clean sea harvesting of corals.

It is a Scientific Knowledge and Local knowledge that the actual harvesting or breaking of the corals will help the coral to multiply.. every single broken pcs of coral will be come a new coral.. Coral is like grass, the more you harvest it or break it, the more it will grow..

The point i am making is clean sea is vital for coral growth and breaking of the coral will help for more corals to grow... Polluted sea water caused by Human developments is the greatest killer of the coral reefs..

Get you facts right and clean up your backyard before telling others what to do.

Give the South Pacific.

Carol Sobieski
Carol Sobieski

How stupid are some people to ruin the undersea plant life? I'm not an expert in this area but even I know you don't take any of that stuff away with you.

Anna
Anna

You all hypocrites...how many years have the so called first world have contributed to the destruction of the marine life.. how many of your human wastes have ended up in the ocean?..all your inland developments wasted ended up in ocean destroying marine life..

Now you are blaming a few third world countries for destroying your reefs... common...it might be a few trinkets for you rich people for the developing countries, it money making a difference in the peoples lifes.

The wise one.
The wise one.

Id rather pay top money for the Beheaded person's heads that are going around the planet doing this horrific acts! It'd be a GREAT conversation piece!!!

d2xyz
d2xyz

Worry about your own backyard. The proposed dredging at the port of miami is about to kill the octocoral on the reef off of miami beach for the vague prospect of increased shipping traffic. The thinking is that there are too many to relocate, so we'll kill them all.

<<EasyCash At Home>>
<<EasyCash At Home>>

In oneself lies the whole world and if you know howto look and learn, the door is there and the key is in your hand. Nobody on earth can give you either the key or the door to open, except yourself.

Nancy
Nancy

Oh shit, you should be a "REAL" scientist

Bebep
Bebep

I don't think breaking coral and selling it dried up in a store is helping anything.

And yeah, no shit that pollution is bad for sea life. Thanks for the facts scientist.

What the hell does pollution have to do with taking coral out of the water and selling it dead in a store? Great argument you got going on.

Anna
Anna

Human development, cites and inland infrastructures, mining etc.. All the activities and wastes washed down into the ocean are the greatest contribution to the undersea life..

Clean sea water will always makes corals grow..

Marilyn Schulz
Marilyn Schulz

This is so reflective of the insanity of the present.. We don't do this dumb shit

Anna
Anna

so the coral is more important that a human life...you must be a sick one and should be thrown to the sharks for a feed

aaron b
aaron b

Ah. That is not true at all. Our company just put in a bid for the massive task of replanting and mitigating the affected coral.

Anna
Anna

People in the South Pacific with clean sea waters took corals because people in USA want them...people in USA wants them in their homes, offices. What then is your problem?.. Do little economics law of demand and supply...what right then you have on other people wanting to do with their lifes?.. Should we stop you eating meat because you are contributing to killing animals?? the whole world is going crazy..

Anna
Anna

You read further in the article and you will see the truth...80% of the coral reefs in Florida were destroyed by Human Development.it does not say commercial harvesting...do not blame those half way around the world for you what you have contributed to destroy.. The south pacific ocean has no big cites and land development as you do ... corals will always live forever and ever...

D2xyz
D2xyz

Those would be hard corals my friend. The octocorals are too numerous.

 
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