[Coral-List] Selling coral is legal in the US

Douglas Fenner dfenner at blueskynet.as
Wed Sep 1 06:52:07 EDT 2004

    The polyps that open and close are probably in the soft coral group,
the Xeniids.  Importing live coral is not only legal, but it is big
business.  You must have a CITIES permit to export or import coral,
alive or dead.  CITIES' purpose is to stop the international trade in
endangered species, and control the trade in threatened species. 
species like Pandas cannot be traded internationally, nor can their
Only about 5 species of the roughly 790 species of reef coral in the
world are documented to be endangered or even threatened, and none of
those 5 are traded to my knowledge.  But coral reefs are threatened.  So
all corals are on a second CITIES list that can be traded but you must
have a permit.  It is hard to tell corals apart, so all corals are on
the list, even though they aren't endangered or threatened or have
anything to do with coral reefs (it includes over 600 species of deep
water solitary corals).  It's a
bit like saying tropical rain forests are endangered, and wood of
different trees is hard to tell apart, so we will make it so anyone must
have a CITIES permit to carry wood between any two countires.  That
includes anything from a tiny piece of wood in your pocket to a giant
ship full of wood from a cold area that is not tropical forest.  And the
big companies have plenty of money to hire specialists to get the
permits, or possibly even grease palms if necessary (in the case of
lumber, they can jail or deport anyone who dares to question illegal
logging in some countries, buy off officials, etc).  But you as a
scientist may have no money and no idea who controls the permits in a
developing country.  I am trying to get a permit to move one small coral
from a country where the responsable officials won't even do me the
courtesy of replying to my letters and e-mails.  Indonesia is the
largest exporter of corals at this time, but about a dozen countries do
it (the Philippines used to be the largest exporter, but has banned all
export for any reason whatsoever, including scientific).  Aquarists like
corals with fleshy polyps, and Indonesia exports significant numbers,
including 10's of thousands of pieces of a couple of quite rare
species.  The exporting country must certify under CITES rules that the
export does not endanger the species, yet Indonesia has very little data
on whether the trade endangers these two rare species.  To find out
would cost a fair amount of money, and money is scarce in the
governments of developing countries (though perhaps not for a few
wealthy individuals in the country). The USA is by far the largest
importer of coral, and the trade is clearly driven by demand.  The trade
in live corals for aquaria has been growing rapidly for some time, but
the trade in coral skeletons is relatively steady (but not
insignificant).  Although the European Union has banned the import of
several fleshy corals, the US has not.  Collecting coral or selling
locally collected coral is certainly illegal in Hawaii and I believe in
Florida as well, but selling imported coral is perfectly legal, provided
there is a CITIES permit.  I would think that local law enforcement
officials would put checking for CITIES permits very low on their list
of priorities, if they know about it at all.  US Customs and US Fish and
Wildlife take it quite seriously, as do Australian and European customs
and probably others.

    For more information see:

Corals in international trade.  US National Marine Fisheries Service
Office of Protected Resources. 

Wabnitz C, Taylor M, Green E, Razak T  (2003)  From ocean to aquarium:
the global trade in marine ornamental species.  64 pp.  www.unep-

Bruckner AW  (2002a)  Trends in international trade in stony corals: a
synopsis of CITES data.  In Bruckner AW (ed.), Proceedings of the
International Workshop on the trade in stony corals: development of
sustainable management guidelines.  NOAA Technical Memorandum
NMFS-OPR-23, Silver Spring, MD, 56-57

Bruckner AW  (2002b)  Surveys of coral collection sites in the Spermonde
Archipelago, South Sulawesi.  In Bruckner AW (ed.), Proceedings of the
International Workshop on the trade in stony corals: development of
sustainable management guidelines.  NOAA Technical Memorandum
NMFS-OPR-23, Silver Spring, MD, 117-135

Raymakers C  (2001)  Review of trade in live corals from Indonesia.
Brussels, TRAFFIC Europe.  18 pp

Lilley G  (2000)  Review of trade in live corals from Indonesia. 
Traffic Europe.  32 pp

Green EP, Hendry H  (1999)  Is CITES an effective tool for monitoring
trade in corals? Coral Reefs 18:403-407

Green E, Shirley F  (1999)  The global trade in coral.  WCMC
Biodiversity Series No. 9. World Conservation Press, Cambridge.  70 pp

Fenner D  (2001)  Mass bleaching threatens two corals with extinction. 
Reef Encounter 29:9-10

    -Douglas Fenner, American Samoa

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