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 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 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.

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 United States, 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 such as 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 States — 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 received 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 such as 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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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.

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

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..

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

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..

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.

Marilyn Schulz
Marilyn Schulz

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

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...

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!!!

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

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.

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.

D2xyz
D2xyz

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

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