Rise in red coral smuggling threatens marine ecology

The China Coast Guard (CCG) has warned of a rise in the poaching of wild coral, saying on Monday that it has detained 80 suspects and confiscated red coral worth over 100 million yuan (16 million U.S. dollars) since March last year.

Red coral, highly valued as jewelry, grows only three to four centimeters in 20 years and matures slowly. It was listed as a protected species by China in 1988, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora limits its trade.

“Red coral products have been increasingly sought after in recent years, and cases of poaching are on the rise in coastal provinces such as Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong, severely harming the marine environment,” said a CCG statement.

With a mature, illegal industry covering poaching, procurement, processing and sales, the price of red coral in China has been increasing by 30 per cent annually over the past ten years. Top-class red coral can cost more then 10,000 yuan per gram.

The CCG has set up checkpoints targeting vessels without names, numbers, certificates or home ports and has impounded 140 vessels used in the red coral trade since March.

In the single biggest case since the CCG was founded two years ago, Guangdong coast guard detained 22 suspects and seized coral worth 5.4 million yuan on April 19 after a three-month investigation.

One suspect spent 890,000 yuan on a fishing vessel and another 50,000 yuan refitting it for coral poaching. He hired 11 sailors on monthly salaries from 7,000 to 10,000 yuan, well above average urban earnings, said the CCG.

According to Zhuang, engineers specializing in refitting boats for coral hunting are easily found, and coral merchants automatically come up with offers. The processed products enter the legal market with forged certificates.

According to Huang Hui, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, red coral mostly grows on the seabed at around 150 meters. Nets made for coral poaching are tied with heavy stones. Everything in the way is “harvested” along with the coral as the nets are towed along.

Describing the poached areas as “underwater deserts,” Huang said such poaching leaves nothing behind and is “disastrous” for marine ecology.

“Although the law has specific stipulations on illegal hunting, many law enforcers on the frontline are not fully aware of the issue and have been giving criminal offenses administrative punishments, and that’s far from enough,” said Zheng Junnan of Jilin University.

Huang claims the market is filled with very similar, cheap coral passed off as red coral. Authentication requires the involvement of professional institutes, raising law enforcement costs.

“There would be no poaching without trade. The law is the bottom line, and raising public awareness should be key,” Zheng said.

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