Coral Reef NOAA
 
November 01, 2014  

Illegal Trade in Deep-Sea Coral



Plea Agreement in Black Coral Illegal Trade Case Not Accepted By Judge

X-ray examination
X-ray examination by CBP revealed that the boxes contained coral. Photo Credit: Customs & Border Protection (CBP)

A U.S. Virgin Islands jewelry company, charged with illegally importing black coral, could be facing a federal jury after a judge rejected a plea deal last month. GEM Manufacturing pleaded guilty in federal court to seven charges, including falsely labeling internationally protected black coral, in the form of jewelry, artistic sculptures, and 13,600 pounds of raw black coral that was shipped into the United States in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Lacey Act. The ESA is the U.S. domestic law that implements the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora and the Lacey Act prohibits trafficking in "illegal" wildlife, fish, and plants.

A box containing CITES-protected black coral being sent illegally to a U.S. company for use in making jewelry.
A box containing CITES-protected black coral being sent illegally to a U.S. company for use in making jewelry. Photo Credit: CBP

The charges stemmed from "Operation Black Gold," a joint investigation launched in 2009 by several agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. NOAA Fisheries Office of Habitat Conservation provided assistance to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in arranging for identification of the confiscated black coral.

Black corals occur throughout the world’s oceans, but are patchily distributed and generally occur in low abundance. They are also slow growing (on the order of μm to mm per year) and long-lived (recent carbon dating estimated the age of one colony to be over 4,000 years old). Black coral is commercially harvested primarily for the jewelry trade. To ensure that international black coral trade is not detrimental to the survival of wild populations, all species of black corals were listed in Appendix II of CITES in 1981.

A bushy black coral on Manning Seamount.
A bushy black coral on Manning Seamount. Named for the color of their skeletons, black corals actually come in many colors. Photo Credit: The Mountains in the Sea Research Team, the IFE crew, and NOAA-OE

In the original plea agreement, GEM agreed to pay a criminal fine of $2 million and an additional $500,000 in community service payments for projects to study and protect black coral. GEM also agreed to hand over 90 pieces of jewelry and 10 artistic sculptures containing black coral, along with more than 13,600 pounds of raw black coral valued at over $2 million. GEM has now entered a not guilty plea and jury selection is set to begin July 11.