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Authorities to step up efforts to stamp out illegal sales of marine, coral species

by Dalya Dajani
Fish trap in marine park AMMAN - Marine authorities will step up efforts to stamp out illegal sales of marine and coral species this year, with new measures targeting pet shops in the country. A Royal Marine Conservation Society (JREDS) official said the organisation had become increasingly concerned about the systematic smuggling of fragile corals and endangered fish species from Aqaba's Red Sea and its impact on the eco system and welfare of these creatures. JREDS Executive Director Fadi Sharaiha told The Jordan Times the society plans on combating the problem with the help of police authorities, environmental rangers and the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority. "The problem has continued for far too long and there needs to be proper awareness and enforcement to put an end to this issue," said Sharaiha. "We are going to be undertaking special visits to pet shops over the next two months to make sure they are aware of the law and penalties and to keep them on their toes," he added. According to the JREDS official, the new measures under study include transferring violators to court and confiscating corals and other marine species on display at pet shops. Sharaiha said the organisation has already upgraded a facility at the Marine Science Station that could house the confiscated items for potential release back into the Red Sea. Fish species could undergo the necessary adaptation while some corals could be replanted. Beautiful coral heritage Aqaba's coral reefs host around 127 species of hard coral and 300 kinds of soft coral, as well as thousands of plants and animals that have coexisted in the Gulf for hundreds of years. Ongoing demand for some of these unique marine species, mostly from local buyers in the capital and coral collectors, has continued to place the ecosystem at risk. According to Sharaiha, among the most common requests the market tries to supply are sea turtles, baby sharks, seahorses, starfish, octopuses, butterfly fish, eels and other marine species. He said many people also request specific types of coral to decorate their aquariums, noting that it is "an unfortunate situation with little regard for the eco system or welfare of these captive species." Abuse, transport or trade of specific types of marine life is a punishable offence under Jordanian law. Currently, marine species are protected by the Agricultural Law, which imposes a JD10 penalty for those caught smuggling marine life and the Environmental Law, which covers both marine and coral species and applies stiffer penalties that can go up to JD25,000 and between six months to three years in prison. However, loopholes in the law as well as weak enforcement present a problem, according to Sharaiha, who explained that court officials continue to lack awareness about the importance of the ecosystem, both as a natural habitat for marine species and a national treasure. "Judges and prosecutors are still unaware of the gravity of the problem," said Sharaiha. "For example, when a person is taken to court, our marine biologists have to go before the judge and try and explain what it means to cut coral or remove an endangered marine species from his habitat," he added. Even then, he noted, violators usually go unpunished or cases are not followed up. Devastated reef by over fishing in Marine Park! Another problem is fishing. Although it is prohibited within the marine park, people are free to fish outside the park's parameters, placing specific marine species at risk. Some endangered species often end up as fishermen's by-catch, while others are specifically targeted. According to JREDS, many of the fish and corals smuggled out of Aqaba's waters are specifically requested by customers. Those removing them from the sea are professionals, who "know exactly what they are looking for and have the skills to trap them," Sharaiha noted. Some of the cases are discovered by teams patrolling the coastal area, while others are detected by the Aqaba Customs authorities. In some cases, those who manage to evade customs are sometimes found by the police while they are being transported on the road. Sharaiha earlier said that the fate of these smuggled fish was unfortunate as most end up dying while being transported in polystyrene boxes, all the way from Aqaba to the capital. The sale of some marine species, such as baby sharks, is permitted under the law if they are purchased from the Far East. This, however, has led to complications as it allows some shops, who validly bought some species from the Far East, to continue using the same official document for species they may have taken from Aqaba's waters. Sharaiha said JREDS was going to lobby for improved enforcement of laws and engage the media in these issues this year.
Copy from The Jordan Times as printed on January 23rd 2009      Help us catch these culprits!