Illegally imported corals find safe haven at S.E.A. Aquarium

On 30 March 2017, 80 pieces of corals were illegally imported into Singapore from the Philippines, and subsequently impounded by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA).

The illegal consignment of five soft corals (in yellow box) and 75 hard corals were wrapped in plastic bags lined with paper, concealed in ceramic mugs, and declared as “plastic aquarium ornaments”. Photo: AVA, ICA)

Singapore is a signatory of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES permits are required for any import, export and re-export of protected species (such as hard corals), including their parts and products.

illegally imported corals
Close-up view of the hard corals. (Photo: AVA, ICA)

While soft corals are not protected by CITES, they were also seized as they had been falsely declared and were bundled together with the hard corals.

The difference between hard and soft corals lies mainly in their structural makeup. Hard corals, also called reef-building corals, have a rock-like skeleton made of calcium carbonate; whereas soft corals lack this hard, calcified skeleton.

The authorities have since placed the corals under the care of S.E.A. Aquarium due to our expertise and facilities.

coral nursery SEA Aquarium
The coral nursery at S.E.A. Aquarium’s back-of-house area

According to Assistant Curator Jason Lim who oversees coral husbandry, most of the corals were in poor to moderate condition when they arrived.

“About 12 pieces were in particularly bad shape, some of them were already rotting away. Only four to five pieces of corals were in excellent condition.”

chalice corals
Some of the hard corals in less than ideal condition

These are mainly Chalice Corals. The more colourful variants can cost about a few hundred US dollars per piece. And from the way the corals are cut (without destroying the polyps), it is most likely conducted by people in the know.

chalice corals
Some of the Chalice corals that are in better condition

Chalice corals are one of the more coveted and expensive corals due to their stunning colours.  In 2009, a rare My Miami Chalice coral was sold for almost USD2,000 on eBay.

The corals are now housed at the back-of-house area to help them ‘recuperate’ from the stress of mishandling during the importation. To speed up their recovery, Jason’s team feeds the corals with a nutrient-rich diet of zooplankton daily. During feeding time, the water pumps are turned off as it is easier for the weakened corals to capture zooplankton in still water than in moving water.

Once the corals are in good shape, they will be transferred to our habitats to add to the vibrant ecosystems.

Out in the wild, corals are under a lot of stress. The Philippines, where the above corals originated, is part of the Coral Triangle, the epicenter for marine biodiversity and widely considered the Amazon of the Sea. It is an area with more species of fish and corals than any other marine environment on earth. Unfortunately, these reefs are threatened by destructive fishing methods including cyanide poisoning and overfishing.

In 2007, Reef Check, an international organisation assessing the health of reefs in 82 countries, stated that only 5% of the Philippines’ coral reefs are in “excellent condition”. These are the Tubbataha Reef Marine Park in Palawan, Apo Island in Negros Oriental, Apo Reef in Puerto Galera, Mindoro, and Verde Island Passage off Batangas. Read more about Reef Check Philippine’s efforts in helping coral reefs in the Philippines.

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