Science

An unlikely wildlife being smuggled into American ports: corals

According to NOAA Fisheriesmore than 25 coral species are considered endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and are thus protected by federal law. Internationally, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora restricts trade in approximately 1,900 coral species, including black corals, red and pink corals, blue corals, stony corals, organ pipe corals and fire corals.

Worse still, by the time these animals reach American shores, they are often sick.

“When corals are stressed, they often create a heavier mucus layer for protection,” says Kim Stone, director of fish and invertebrates at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, which has helped federal wildlife authorities care for confiscated corals.

This otherwise protective measure contaminates the coral’s small water reserve, altering its pH and oxygen levels, which in turn causes more stress on the animal, creating what Ms. Stone calls a “downward spiral.” It is not unusual for a shipment of coral to contain animals that have already died.

“If the water is not clear, you have to act quickly,” Ms. Stone said.

As conservationists try to reduce demand for illegal coral and choke off supply, they face major dilemmas over what to do with the endangered animals they confiscate.

Seized animals must be housed and cared for, both for their own well-being, but also because they become evidence once they are taken into custody. This means they must be cared for until charges are dismissed against a suspect in a human trafficking case, or until they are permanently seized by authorities. And even then, it’s usually not possible to return corals to the wild because it’s not clear where the animals come from, or the countries where they were collected won’t take them back.

To address this problem, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has worked with zoos and aquariums near airports and ports to house corals on an individual basis. However, the closest facilities have often borne the brunt of this traffic and have been flooded.

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