Coral smuggling degrades environment, economy

Due to their brilliant composition, design, and strategic locations, coral reefs serve superbly as natural shock absorbers from the relentless force of the sea. By absorbing energy from gentle or powerful waves, coral reefs protect beaches from erosion, preventing water from easily cutting into mounds of sand that lay far beneath the bare feet of beach-goers above them. Without this bulwark of coral, precious beach would degrade and collapse.

Little made by man can replace this natural wonder.

Although coral reefs comprise less than .01 percent of ocean life and habitat, they support 25 percent of all marine life. The protective, nutrient-rich habitat they provide forms the basis of an ecosystem that extends to marine forests and mangroves that attract thousands of diverse species of fish for safe breeding.

Approximately 275 million people worldwide live fewer than 10 kilometers inland from ocean beaches, or 30 kilometers inland from coral reefs. Because of their relatively close proximity to coral reefs, they manage to reap the greatest benefits: fresh seafood and income. Well-managed coral reefs can provide habitat for 5-to-15 tonnes of fish per square kilometer, making their financial value for the industries of marine-fishing, tourism, and even ocean protection around $30 billion.

Unfortunately, weak laws and poor regulation of coral smuggling have led to the demise of these species and subsequently serious shoreline degradation. All hard coral species are listed in CITES appendices except for the red coral.

Between 2013 and 2014, known global trade of coral in Tunisia increased a staggering 92 percent, from 4,044 to 7,820 kg. This development followed a parallel doubling in the number of fishing journeys in those years from 733 in 2013, to 1,488 in 2014. During that year, 7,676 kg of coral valued at about 17 million dinars ($7,037,444 USD), were known to have been exported to foreign markets, especially Italy.

The primary method to extract ocean coral is by diving. In Tunisia, coral fishing by diving requires prior authorization from the Ministry of Agriculture. In 2014, the ministry issued 26 such licenses.

While smuggling occurs in Tunisia, most of the confiscated coral originates from Algeria. The contraband is then smuggled into Tunisia across the Tunisian-Algerian border.

In the Sidi Salem district, the trade is valued between 5- and 10-million Algerian Dinars ($4,500 to $9,000 USD) per day. The Algerian coral is smuggled through Oum Teboul and Laayoune, where Tunisian smugglers receive and transport it to secret workshops in the Tunisian city of Tabarka (on the Algerian border), or the island of Djerba (southern Tunisia) where half of it is manufactured for various purposes, and then typically smuggled to Torre del Greco near Naples, where the ‘coral mafia’ is active.

Branding marks that legitimize some as sought-after art pieces are added to smuggled coral, and pieces are crafted into jewelry and exported to European markets in Spain, France, Denmark, and Norway, as well as Asian markets in China, and the Arabian Peninsula. These branding marks lead to high prices which are incomparable to the prices of the raw smuggled product.

Algerian authorities presently hold a stockpile of 20,000 tons of coral, of which 48 percent is the unique and coveted red color. Algeria is said to have hundreds of smugglers and illegal coral fishermen, including the Croix de Saint André, who frequently use dangerous means to collect coral. Their methods destroy coral reefs as well as all surrounding marine life.

The quantity of coral smuggled from Algeria is estimated to be 2,000 kg per year, and this amount includes dozens of rare coral branches. Every year between Algeria and Tunisia, anywhere from 250 to 300 smugglers and illegal hunters are caught and arrested. Their coral is sold in Algeria for between 70,000 and 80,000 Algerian dinars, while its actual gathering price ranges from 800 to 1500 Euros per kg and 15,000 Euros for a single coral branch.

Results of a study of the greatest threats to coral reefs undertaken by the National Institute of Marine Science and Technology (Adel Qa’mour) reveal that 35 percent of all coral reefs worldwide have been severely exploited, another 35 percent have been moderately exploited, 10 percent have been modestly exploited, and 20 percent remain untainted.

According to Tunisian Law, anyone violating restrictions on coral fishing shall be punished by imprisonment for a period of 16 days to one year or shall be subject to paying a fine of from 100 to 500 dinars, or both.

This penalty, when compared to the drastic environmental disaster unleashed on the environment and economy that the random fishing and smuggling of coral creates, is weak and an obvious non-deterrent.

Since 2011, the tiny country has experienced a steady growth in smuggling of all kinds. The following cases reflect the scourge in coral smuggling:

  • February 2015: Authorities detect smuggling by truck of 200 kg of coral at the port of Halk El-Wadi
  • March 2015: 500 kg in a supply truck used to supply vessels at the port of Halk El-Wadi
  • May 2015: 72 kg estimated at 500,000 dinars
  • Feb 2016: 16 kg with estimated value of 240,000 dinars in Ain Dharam (northwest) coming from Algeria and hidden in a car
  • July 2016: Seizure of car with three smugglers toting 125 kg worth 1,219,500 dinars.
  • Aug 2016: In the city of Monastir (160 km south of Tunisia), the smuggling of 315 kg worth 1.5 million dinars found on board a yacht owned by a Tunisian. The goods as well as the yacht were seized, and its owner, a Tunisian, and his Dutch companion were arrested.

When intercepted, most of this contraband had been headed to Italy to be sold, but these cases represent only a sample of this illegal trade. Authorities realize that larger quantities of coral have been slashed from shoreline beds.

Indeed, it is common practice for smuggling rings to set up pawns to be caught with small amounts, thereby throwing police and customs agents off the trail of bigger players in the game. In this way, ring-leaders can get away with earning much larger amounts.


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