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.
"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."