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US charges 10 with smuggling protected corals from Philippines

The men are accused of paying a Filipino supplier to dive for the corals and ship them to the U.S using false labels.

(CN) — Ten men were charged Friday with smuggling more than 3,000 pieces of coral from the Philippines to sell online to collectors and hobbyists.

Three men from Florida, Massachusetts, and California face felony charges and the other seven were charged with misdemeanor offenses, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney's office in Anchorage, Alaska.

The men are accused of having paid a supplier in the Philippines from 2017 through 2018 to dive for the corals and ship them to the U.S. in falsely labeled packages. Some of the corals were sold in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, which is an international treaty to prevent species from becoming endangered or extinct because of international commercial trade, according to the statement.

Under Philippines law, it is illegal to gather, possess, commercially transport, sell or export corals commercially regardless of CITES status, prosecutors say. The ten Americans are charged, through their Filipino supplier, with illegally purchasing and transporting coral in violation of both Philippines and United States law.

The Philippines is one of six countries straddling the Coral Triangle, a 5.4 million-square-kilometer stretch of ocean that contains 75% of the world's coral species, one-third of the Earth's coral reefs and more than 3,000 species of fish, the Justice Department said. Poaching for corals and other factors have left only 5% of coral reefs in the Philippines in “excellent” condition, with only 1% in a "pristine" state.

Aside from illegal harvesting, coral reefs have also been depleted through climate change. Australia’s famous Great Barrier Reef has been suffering widespread and severe coral bleaching due to high ocean temperatures two years after a mass bleaching event.

The reef has suffered significantly from coral bleaching caused by unusually warm ocean temperatures in 2016, 2017 and 2020. The previous bleaching damaged two-thirds of the coral.

In addition, pollution from plastics in the ocean is a growing threat to sensitive ecosystems such as coral reefs. As plastic breaks down into ever-smaller pieces it also enters the marine food chain, being ingested by everything from whales to turtles to tiny plankton.

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