CITES and the coral trade.

J. Charles Delbeek delbeek at
Fri Feb 18 15:49:24 EST 2000

On Fri, 18 Feb 2000, John Ware wrote:

> >From the numerous responses I have received (most of which have appeared
> in the list, and thank you very much), several simple concepts can be
> distilled:
> 1- Corals cannot be imported into the United States from countries which
> forbid the collection of corals.

For the most part true, however, there have been cases in the Philippines
where dried coral skeletons have been released to the market with the
blessings of the government, ostensibly to clear stocks that had been
sitting in warehouses for decades.

> 2- CITES, to which the US is a signatory, has put all Scleractinia and
> Antipatharia on its protected list.  Apparently, this has the effect of
> making importation of these corals into the United States by anyone not
> possessing a valid permit illegal.

Again for the most part true. However, since there are three appendices
under CITIES, I don't believe the term "protect" applies to all three.
Certainly Appendice I animals are barred from being traded unless both
import and export permits are in place. Appendice II and II organisms can
still be traded but their numbers and movements are beingtracked, so that
if things get out of hand they cpould be moved to appendice I. Now corals
(stony and precious only at the moment, though Tubipora a soft coral is
also on it) can be traded as an appendice II animal provided the exporting
country provides a permit. There is nothing illegal about shipping these
organisms provided teh proper permit has been issued.

> 3- The Fish and Wildlife Service have the authority to enforce the
> regulations regarding corals.  However, it is Customs who must detect
> and recognize that a coral or coral product is subject to FWS
> jurisdiction and contact the appropriate authorities.

Now we get into the sticky area. USFWS does have this authority but in the
past, thanks to some, shall we say "overzealous" inspectors, they have
taken it upon themselves to single-handedly become the protectors of all
things scleractinian. The irony is that through their actions, they
probably are responsible for the death of these same animals.

Shipments of live soft corals have been confiscated and allowed to rot on
the loading docks because an inspector discovered sand grains attached to
the bottom of a leather coral, and since these sand grains might be
scleractinian in nature and not declared on the import permit, it was an
illegal shipment. It is not uncommon for several boxes of live corals to
be confiscated in LA for example, because the import permit lists X number
of a certain species but X+1 is in the box. Or the coral was misidentified
according to the inspector, therefor an entire shipment can be
confiscated. For an act, whose purpose at some level is to only monitor a
trade, some are using to completely hinder a trade by relying on
technicalites when perhaps a system of fines might be a better way of
dealing with such errors.

> 4- For the most part, the only people being terribly bothered by the
> regulations are legitimate scientists who make the mistake of actually
> openly admitting that they have something to declare or that is subject
> to CITES.  

No they are not the only ones, see above examples.

>         Just as a guess, I would imagine that the amount of coral
> brought into the US and/or taken by scientists world wide is a small
> fraction of the amount taken for resale to the aquarium trade, the curio
> trade, or to be made into jewelry.  I cannot even begin to guess what
> portion of the total direct damage to coral reefs falls into this
> 'commercial' area (as opposed to damage by, e.g., blast fishing). 
> Perhaps someone out there has an estimate and estimates may be available
> in the literature?

I would suggest that you get a copy of the World Conservation Monitoring
Centers Biodiversity Series Report No. 9, The Global Trade in Coral by
Green and Shirley, 1999 There are some errors in teh
numbers and how they were arrived at but the authors recognize that the
data colelcted by CITIES when it comes to corals, may not be in a form
that conveys the most useful amount of information i.e. numbers vs.
weights. What is interesting
from the report though, and this is something that seems to have been
ignored by members of the coral reef task force etc etc, is that the
numbers of live corals imported into the US between 1985 and 1997 showed a
peak in the early 90's and a smaller peak in 1995 but the general trend
since 1992 is for LOWRER imports into the US. The US is still the main
importer in the world of live coral, but when you comapre the amounts to
the trade in dead corals, corals harvested by locals for lime production
for roads and buildings, it pales in comparison. If we really want to
protect coral reefs in these countries, then maybe we should send them a
few tons of Portland cement and other construction materials?

> However that may be, the primary purpose of this memo is to inquire if
> there is an effective way to inform the traveling, diving,
> aquaria-owning public of these restrictions.  Certainly, if no one
> bought black-coral jewelry and carvings, eventually the taking of
> black coral would stop.  Or am I being naive?

There are those who would argue that the black coral industry is a
sustainable one if propoerly managed, and in many countries it is legal
for citizens to collect pieces and rework them into jewelery. By urging
people not to purchase these works could result in loss of income for
indigenous peoples, its an old argument that is used in many industries,
and not easily dismissed. Until recently, it was perfectly legal to
collect black coral in Hawaii, only this year, are permits required from
the local DLNR. I am talking strictly non-commercial collecting here,
commercial collectors have had size restrictions for decades. Anyway, Dr.
Grigg of the University of HAwaii is much more qualified to talk about
this issue than I am and perhaps he will put in his comments.

> In any event, I intend to do as much as possible in my area to
> inform scuba divers (who constitute a large portion of the tourism to
> reef areas and who are responsible for buying much of the black coral
> sold to US citizens), of the legalities of the situation as well as the
> ecological impacts.


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