Poachers are believed to be responsible for taking a large sea fan coral from waters that are under environmental protection off Ivalino (野銀) village on Orchid Island (蘭嶼, also known as Lanyu), a local diver said.
Diver Hsiaman Namute said the missing coral was one of a pair of exceptionally large sea fan corals at the location, each with a height and width of about 2m.
The sea fan corals were known only to veteran local divers, because they are located at a depth of about 36m and are swept by strong currents that are considered too challenging for novice divers, Namute said.
He spotted ropes around the base of one of the corals when he was diving in the area on Wednesday, prompting him to investigate the area, which is when he discovered that one of the sea fan corals was missing, Namute said, adding that white accretions on the rope suggest it had been there for some time.
“Lanyu has a rich coral ecology and there are quite a few sea fan corals [in the waters near the island], but it takes between 100 and 200 years for them to grow to a height of 2m,” he said.
Allen Chen (陳昭倫), a research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Biodiversity Research Center, said that he saw the coral on a visit seven years ago, and that specimens of that size are considered very large for the seabed near Lanyu.
Chen said that sea fan corals are commonly harvested for decorative purposes without being cut, because they lack the hardness of precious corals and are not highly valued in the coral jewelry trade.
However, sea fan corals have an appealing shape and their red color is similar to that found in precious corals, making them a choice for counterfeiters, who paint over them and sell them to Chinese customers, who are less likely to know the difference, Chen said.
Chen said that a recent sweep in the seas near Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) that resulted in the detention of a number of sailors on fishing boats registered in China was an operation targeting illegal coral harvesting.
Sea fan corals play an important role in maritime ecology in deep waters with rapid currents, he added.
The Taitung County Agriculture Department issued a statement saying that coral harvests are forbidden in the seas within 12 nautical miles (22.2km) of Lanyu, and that it would launch an investigation.
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