Coral Confiscated at Roatan Airport
Airport security inspectors confiscated several shopping bags full of coral, conch shells, sponges and other marine organisms in late May from a tourist returning from Roatan to the US, according to Giacomo Palavicini, executive director of the Roatan Marine Park.
“If he would have put it in the luggage under the plane, he might have taken it away,” said Palavicini. The items were seized only because he tried to carry them on board and stow them in the overhead bin. The security staff detected them as part of normal pre-boarding inspection.
Palavicini said such contraband was seized at the airport “pretty much every week,” but this seizure was unusually large. The items seized were all protected not only by national laws but by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, he said, which means they would have been subject to possible confiscation by US Customs on arrival in the US.
Palavicini said Honduran law prohibited the extraction of coral or sponges, living or dead. Rules are stricter within the Bay Islands National Marine Park. Penalties can include heavy fines and up to nine years in prison. However, airport officials do not have the authority to enforce the laws, and the man in this case was allowed to board his plane and leave the country with no legal consequences.
“For them to be able to do any stronger enforcement, they have to be in conjuction with the police,” he said. The Marine Park is working to first train the airport staff on what to look for, then create the needed link with the police.
“Little by little I think it’s going towards that direction,” Palavicini said. “So people need to start understanding and being aware that very soon it’s going to happen.”
Meanwhile, he said, the Marine Park is working with airport authorities to start placing brochures into the passports of arriving tourists as they pass through immigration explaining the restrictions on removing items from the marine environment. The Responsible Seafood Guide placed at restaurants on the island help visitors assure themselves that what they are eating has been legally and responsibly harvested. There is no such program in place for gift shops selling items made from corals and shells, Palavicini said, but he agreed “That could be a great project to start. … We definitely recommend shops that we know don’t sell anything illegal.” For example, he said, “There’s a guy that actually has a special permit, that he gets the conch from outside the park.” Another has a similar permit to market items made from black coral, he said.
Palavicini said people needed to realize that even dead marine organisms play an important role in the ecoystem. When hard corals die and break off the reef, they provide a space for new corals to take hold and grow, or they erode to create beach. “So, no matter we find any dead organisms of the sea, we should not extract them. They should stay in the sea because they fulfill a function, and it’s a cycle.”