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Conservationists Call for Ban on Sale of Coral Species

June 09, 2006

PRESS CONTACT:

Andrew Baker, University of Miami / Wildlife Conservation Society; 1-305-421-4642; abaker@rsmas.miami.edu

Steven Lutz, Marine Conservation Biology Institute; 1-202-536-5346; steven.lutz@mcbi.org

Conservationists are calling for a ban on the sale of Caribbean elkhorn and staghorn corals, newly protected today under the Endangered Species Act, though still legally sold in shell shops and souvenir stores of South Florida.

Last month NOAA announced that these two species of Caribbean coral are to be placed on the list of threatened species protected under the Endangered Species Act. These species were once dominant builders of Caribbean coral reefs, but over the last 30 years have experienced dramatic declines throughout the region. The new protection is an effort to reverse this decline, thought to have been the result of disease, global warming, and hurricanes.

Despite these declines, and the new protection that came into effect today, these corals are still legally being offered for sale in shell shops and souvenir stores around South Florida, say Dr. Andrew Baker, an Associate Conservation Biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Steven Lutz, an Ocean Policy Analyst with the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, DC. Lutz and Baker have been monitoring the sale of these corals over the last 18 months, and routinely see their skeletons for sale, sometimes for thousands of dollars each. Today, those corals are still on the shelves.

These coral species are now protected to a similar degree as bald eagles and loggerhead turtles here in the US, and African elephants, koala bears and west African manatees overseas,says Baker, who is also an Assistant Professor at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. The fact that their dead remains can still be purchased in these stores reveals how much we need to raise awareness of the plight of these corals. The stigma attached to purchasing elephant tusks or sea turtle shells does not exist for these threatened corals.

The continued sale of these corals is not illegal because the rules governing the sale of corals collected before the new rules came into effect have yet to be established. However, says Baker. Having these corals protected, yet still on sale, confuses the public. There is no easy way of knowing when they were collected, and individual specimens can be tremendously valuable. Unless we can prevent the sale of these corals, even those collected prior to the listing, we will inevitably open the door to potential poaching and send a mixed message to visitors who visit South Florida and need to understand the message that our reefs are in trouble, says Baker.

Living corals on reefs are much more valuable to South Floridians than dead corals on shelves, says Lutz. Healthy reefs around the world provide protection from hurricanes, homes for fish and lobsters, and revenue from recreation and tourism. Stores selling corals and other marine curios have been a part of Florida's landscape for many years, but the reefs that older South Floridians experienced as children are now changed beyond recognition. We are gambling with ecosystems worth billions of dollars in tourism, Lutz adds, "And if we don't act soon these reefs may vanish altogether."


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