- For years, Thailand has focused on curtailing its illegal trade in terrestrial wildlife.
- Recently, the country has begun trying to do the same for marine coral species, primarily those caught up in the ornamental aquarium trade.
- New laws, higher penalties for breaking them, beefed-up enforcement and a national mandate to curtail illegal coral trade are all part of Thailand’s efforts to end the trade in its corals.
- While authorities have made several arrests, they have yet to bust any high-profile coral traders.
BANGKOK – A few dawns into 2022, authorities raided a shophouse in the heart of Thailand’s capital city. Officers from the Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Division of the Royal Thai Police and the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources discovered the shop was breeding coral and selling it on Facebook for as little as $4 to $20 apiece and selling giant clams for a little more than $10.
A few months later, police raided another coral shop breeding and selling more than 300 kinds of coral and other marine species.
They seized all the corals in both cases. The shop owners were sent to court to await a verdict that could land them each up to 10 years in jail plus a hefty fine up to $30,500.
For years, Thailand has focused on curtailing its illegal trade in terrestrial wildlife. Recently, the country has begun trying to do the same for marine coral species, primarily those caught up in the ornamental aquarium trade.
Breeding and selling live coral have long been illegal in Thailand. The country added coral to its list of protected animals in 1992. The list currently includes all coral species in the orders Gorgonacea, Antipatharia, Stylasterina, Scleractinia, Milleporina, Helioporacea and Alcyonacea, specimens of which the officers scooped up during the raids last year.
New laws, higher penalties for breaking them, beefed-up enforcement and a national mandate to curtail illegal coral trade are all part of Thailand’s efforts to end the trade in its corals.
There’s been no research into how the coral trade affects the 239 square kilometers (92 square miles) of wild coral that live in Thai waters.
In September 2022, the Department of Fisheries issued a public notice warning that any trade in coral, sea anemones and giant clams could result in imprisonment or fines and expressing concern about the trade’s effects: “Thailand’s marine ecosystems have deteriorated, resulting in the loss of nutrient cycle systems and a rippling impact on the ocean environment, especially on coral reefs, the breeding and nursery grounds and refuges for marine animals, which are often harvested and sold in ornamental fish markets.”
Athapol Charoenshunsa, who until Jan. 25 was chief of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, told Mongabay that the Thai live coral trade is probably worth less than 500 million baht ($15.2 million) annually.
“But it could increase at any time … because there is a demand all over the world for beautiful things, especially after the three quiet years of COVID. The trade could expand if we do not block it early.”
Thailand’s 5-year Coral Reef Management Action Plan, covering 2022 through 2026 and released in October 2021, showed 37% of the country’s coral reefs had been damaged by nature and humans.
Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine scientist at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, told Mongabay the damage is more significant than the report states. “There are 936 islands where thorough coral research is hard to do and [damage] could go unnoticed,” he said.
“Thailand has constantly contributed to the degradation of corals for the last 30 years, whether through sedimentation in the sea, chemical contamination, overfishing, [or] unsustainable tourism like severe littering on the beaches that are our tourist paradise,” Petch Manopawitr, adviser on marine programs to the NGO Wildlife Conservation Society Thailand, told Mongabay. “Many places don’t have proper waste management and sewage treatment, and some don’t have any at all. This is not to mention the huge amount of plastic waste.”
Manopawitr said people don’t realize how closely tied their lives are to the coral, or the true cost of harming it.
“We earn $2 billion [annually] from coral-related tourism — that’s no small amount. And while we are busy trying to cope with land erosion and deteriorating coastlines, studies show that coral reefs can reduce the intensity of waves hitting the shore by 97%. They are great natural barriers.”
Like most conservation scientists, Thamrongnawasawat and Manopawitr said climate change, which is warming the ocean and causing corals in many places to bleach and die, is the most severe threat to coral and its ecosystems.
“Bleaching is a time bomb and a category five hurricane. It can come at any time, and the damage will be unpredictable,” Manopawitr said.
Even so, it would be wrong to consider coral trading a petty issue, both said. “It may not be as frightening as climate change, but that doesn’t mean we should pretend we can’t see,” Thamrongnawasawat said of the coral trade. “The more we overlook it, the worse it will become.”
No to homegrown coral
More research is needed into how to stop the coral trade in Thailand. But in other markets, such as Indonesia, Australia and the U.S., a study by marine scientists suggested that replacing wild-harvested coral with cultivated coral could help conserve natural reefs.
In Thailand, only government entities can lawfully breed coral. For more than three decades, scientists in more than a dozen public facilities have been working on coral breeding with the goal of improving reproduction, producing stronger strains of coral and averting extinctions. Coral collectors and sellers have urged the government to also permit domestic coral breeding by private persons and businesses.
But Manopawitr said that allowing private entities to grow coral could lead to widespread laundering of illegally harvested wild coral as legally grown coral.
“We risk intensifying the trade,” he said. “I think corals could become more threatened. How are we going to manage or prove which corals are captive-bred and which ones are natural? It’s very risky.”
Thamrongnawasawat, who has worked on several government coral-culturing initiatives, said authentication is a serious matter.
“Unless we can implant microchips in corals [to prove their origin and authenticity], like we do in other wildlife, we can’t afford the risk,” he said.
Beefing up enforcement
Thailand’s newly amended 2019 Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act came with harsh maximum penalties for possessing or selling protected animals: a 1 million Thai baht ($30,500) fine and 10 years in prison. That’s 25 times the fine and 2.5 times the prison sentence of the previous law.
According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the act gave Thailand “some of the severest penalties for illegal wildlife trafficking offences in the region.”
Furthermore, two other laws, the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 1999 and the Anti-Participation in Transnational Organized Crime Act of 2013, come with additional legal penalties, including asset forfeiture. In 2021, Thai anti-money laundering authorities seized or froze $11 million in assets from the alleged leader of a notorious wildlife trafficking ring, Boonchai Bach.
Charoenshunsa, the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources chief, said it’s time to consider treating the coral trade the same way.
“If penalties under existing [wildlife] regulations cannot stop them, then we should consider incorporating allegations of money laundering and asset seizure,” he said.
But breaking a small fish bowl by going after home aquarists is not the plan, he said: “We will find big traffickers. The perpetrators. Those who run behind and benefit from this lucrative but devastating business.”
However, the country has yet to find one of them.
Thailand has endorsed the global “30 by 30” initiative under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity to protect 30% of terrestrial and marine habitats by 2030.
So far, the country has protected 25% of its terrestrial area, but only 5% of its marine area, according to Charoenshunsa, and the government is rushing to fill the gap. In July 2022, the entire coastal area of Trang province was listed as a marine protected area (MPA), covering 12,140 hectares (30,000 acres), including 485 hectares (1,200 acres) of coral reef. And there is a long pipeline of proposed MPAs covering hundreds of coral reefs in more than 10 coastal provinces, slated for listing in 2023 alone.
Charoenshunsa said wild-coral traders found operating inside MPAs would face additional harsh charges under multiple laws, including the Act on the Promotion of Marine and Coastal Resources Management, the Natural Park Act, the Conservation of the National Environment Quality Act and even the Community Forest Act.
Challenges and skepticism ahead
Thailand’s 5-year Coral Reef Management Action Plan aims to bring down the portion of the country’s damaged coral from 37% to 30% by 2026. The country has assigned a troop of seven government entities, including the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, the Department of Fisheries, Marine Police Division and the Navy, to control threats to coral, including coral harvest and trafficking.
“With this force, we should do much better than planned,” Charoenshunsa said. “I aim to push the damage down to as low as 5%. To reach this, we need to press all possible threats, including the coral trade, down to 5% too.”
Thamrongnawasawat expressed skepticism the goal could be achieved.
“We have enough rules and regulations. The question is how much we can really enforce them. Many government agencies have been brought in to address this, but each one has different aims and resources are also limited. Having worked around the sea for over four decades and witnessed its continual decline, it’s difficult for me to be certain [the plan will work].”
Banner image: A coral reef in Thailand. Image by Umeed Mistry / Ocean Image Bank.
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Rhyne, A. L., Tlusty, M. F., & Kaufman, L. (2014). Is sustainable exploitation of coral reefs possible? A view from the standpoint of the marine aquarium trade. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 7, 101-107. doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2013.12.001
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