Unlikely Wild Animals Are Being Smuggled Into U.S. Ports: Corals

You might imagine that when federal wildlife inspectors search for illegally trafficked animal goods, they’d be on the lookout for elephant ivory or tiger skins. But other creatures are frequently being seized at American ports of entry, creatures you perhaps would not realize are animals: corals.

Corals are not plants: They are tiny invertebrates that live in vast colonies, forming the foundation of the world’s tropical reefs. Marine life traffickers hammer and chisel them off reefs in places like Indonesia, Fiji, Tonga, Australia or the Caribbean, then pack them into small baggies of seawater so they can be boxed up by the hundreds and shipped around the world. While most coral is shipped into the United States legally, individuals and wholesalers, growing in number, are being intercepted with coral species or quantities that are restricted or banned from trade, often hidden inside shipments containing legal species.

All over the world, corals, which populate reefs, filter water and provide habitats for numerous fish and other ocean life, are in danger. They face disease outbreaks, bleaching events, ocean acidification and warming seas. Their jeopardy is exacerbated by sediment and nutrient runoff from human activities on land, as well as by cyanide fishing and even trampling by tourists.

Then, where coral remains healthy and unmolested, it may be targeted by traffickers, who sell the animals to aquarium enthusiasts in wealthy countries who may or may not know that the coral has been acquired illegally. Corals were the third-most confiscated wildlife group globally between 1999 and 2018, making up 14.6 percent of all seizures, according to a report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The United States is a huge part of that trade.

“The U.S. is the primary market for marine corals,” said Ashley Skeen, a senior wildlife inspector for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We’re number one.”

According to NOAA Fisheries, more than 25 coral species are considered endangered or threatened 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 the trade of around 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, a lot of times what they’ll do is create a heavier mucus layer for protection,” said Kim Stone, director of fish and invertebrates at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, which has helped federal wildlife authorities care for seized coral.

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

“If the water’s not clear, you need to move quickly,” Ms. Stone said.

As wildlife officials work to reduce the demand for illegal coral and choke off supply, they face major dilemmas about what to do with the imperiled animals they seize.

Confiscated animals must be housed and looked after, both for their own welfare, but also because they become evidence once they are taken into custody. This means that they must be cared for either until charges against a defendant in a trafficking case are dismissed, or they are permanently seized by the authorities. And even then, returning corals to the wild is usually not possible, because it’s not clear where the animals originated, or the countries from which they were extracted 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 a case-by-case basis. But the closest facilities have usually taken the brunt of this traffic and become inundated.

In 2023, the service began a pilot program in Southern California with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, aiming to solve this problem by creating the equivalent of a Bat-Signal for seized wildlife. It’s called the Wildlife Confiscations Network, and it has been so successful that officials are now moving to replicate the effort in the Southeast.

“We’ve set up a network of trusted, reputable facilities,” said Sara Walker, senior adviser on wildlife trafficking for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “And law enforcement can call one person, and that person will do all the legwork, calling around, finding out who’s got the space.”

This is critical when a shipment comes in with large quantities of animals that may require triage and housing provided across various organizations, and all of it quickly.

In fact, some corals cannot even be identified while they’re in crisis, because the individual animals, or polyps, won’t open up. To coax them out, Ms. Stone said it’s critical to get them acclimated to clean flowing water and eventually suitable food. Light levels may also need to be adjusted, depending on the species and condition.

As of now, the Wildlife Confiscations Network includes 26 facilities. Many of them are concentrated in Southern California, such as the San Diego Zoo, the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, and the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Springs.

Each institution has been vetted and trained on how to perform triage on corals and other confiscated animals, and also how to do so in a way that does not jeopardize an open investigation. For instance, confiscated animals must be rigorously documented and kept from view and not discussed with the public or news media until the investigation has come to a close.

Since its inception in August 2023, the Wildlife Confiscations Network has already processed about 2,800 animals as part of more than 70 legal cases.

“A large number of those are aquatic invertebrates,” Ms. Walker said. “Corals and clams, those come in by the hundreds.”

In April, the officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums met with the Georgia Aquarium and more than a dozen other animal care facilities to discuss expanding the network into the Southeast. The goal is to more evenly address the influx of trafficked invertebrates to the region.

Officials say the Georgia Aquarium is a natural partner in the effort. With a heavy volume of seizures at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Georgia Aquarium has taken around 1,000 confiscated animals since 2010. In addition to large amounts of coral, other trafficking victims have included Motoro rays, sharks, stingrays, sea turtles and seahorses. But nearly half of the animals have been corals, Ms. Stone said.

While the final details still require ironing out, expanding the network to the Southeast could provide relief for government agencies and animal care institutions alike. Further expansion may include institutions in Florida and Texas.

Corals are better left in the wild, experts say, but there are silver linings after illegally trafficked specimens are confiscated and properly cared for by experts. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a confiscated coral if you’ve visited some aquariums.

Walk past the Indo-Pacific Barrier Reef exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium, for instance, and you can view a Turbinaria coral that was confiscated in 2005, shortly after Ms. Stone joined the aquarium.

It took years for the Turbinaria to recover, but now the colony has grown to more than 2.5 feet in size under her care and taken on a shape like a giant eye.

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