Using Crime Script Analysis to Understand the Illegal Harvesting of Live Corals: Case Studies From Indonesia and Fiji

Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2020, Vol. 36(3) 384 –402
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1043986220910295
Using Crime Script Analysis
to Understand the Illegal
Harvesting of Live Corals:
Case Studies From Indonesia
and Fiji
Monique C. Sosnowski1, Judith S. Weis2,
and Gohar A. Petrossian1
Imported to adorn tanks of marine aquarium hobbyists, the trade in live corals
poses a significant risk to species that concurrently face threats from rising global
temperatures, pollution, and destructive fishing practices. To better understand
the live coral trade, we employed a crime script framework to analyze the process
by which corals are harvested in two of the world’s major exporting countries—
Indonesia and Fiji. We demonstrate that coral harvesting and export are complex
activities that require a specific set of skills and tools. As such, various intervention
strategies are proposed to address illegal coral harvesting at different stages of the
crime script.
coral harvesting, crime script analysis, environmental criminology, Indonesia, Fiji
Coral reefs are among the most diverse and productive communities on earth, support-
ing millions of species as habitat, feeding, and breeding areas (Hoeksema, 2017).
Coral reefs, however, are under great stress from a variety of environmental factors.
The most widespread stress is that of global climate change. Elevated temperatures
1John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, NY, USA
2Rutgers University–Newark, NJ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Monique C. Sosnowski, Department of Criminal Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 524 West
59th Street, Haaren Hall - 63107, New York, NY 10019, USA.
910295CCJXXX10.1177/1043986220910295Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeSosnowski et al.
Sosnowski et al. 385
cause corals to expel their algal partners (“zooxanthellae”). This, in turn, leads to the
loss of an important source of nutrition for corals and results in bleaching and potential
death (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2007), a phenomenon observed throughout the Great
Barrier Reef of Australia between 2016 and 2017.
Stresses at the more local level on coral reefs include pollution by excess nutrients,
such as nitrogen from sewage fertilizers runoff, which stimulate the growth of algae
over the corals that smother and kill them (Fabricius, 2005). This process was respon-
sible for the degradation of many Caribbean reefs in the late 20th century. The effects
can be reduced if there are sufficient numbers of grazers, such as parrotfish, to eat the
algae, but unfortunately in many areas, these fish have been overharvested. Corals also
suffer from a variety of infectious diseases (Richardson, 1998) that can be exacerbated
by climate change (Bruno et al., 2003) and plastic pollution (Lamb et al., 2018).
Fishers may further utilize destructive methods, such as dynamite and cyanide fishing,
to collect fish from reefs for consumption or the aquarium trade, but kill extensive
areas of corals in the process (Caldwell & Fox, 2006; McManus et al., 1997).
In addition to environmental threats, corals are collected for curios, jewelry, and the
aquarium trade. Marine aquarium hobbyists used to focus on colorful reef fish but
developed a notable demand for live corals. These hobbyists are primarily in the United
States, where over 2 million households have marine aquaria (Thornhill, 2012) with
corals originating primarily from tropical Asian countries. In 1996, the United States
was importing over 80% of all the live coral in trade, representing at least 350,000
pieces. Since then, imports of live coral have dramatically increased. Rhyne et al.
(2012) found that the trade had increased over 8% per year between 1990 and the mid-
2000s, only decreasing thereafter. In 2010, the number of coral pieces imported was
more than 500,000, with most of them in the genera Acropora and Euphyllia. The tim-
ing of the peak and decline varied among species and was considered to be caused by
the rising popularity of mini-reef aquariums, the global financial crisis, and an increase
in the production of Acropora species by aquaculture. This demand for live corals is
also strong in the European Union, where corals are the second most frequently seized
wildlife group following reptiles and preceding mammals (van Uhm, 2016).
The illegal trade in wildlife, including corals, is among the most profitable criminal
enterprises in the world (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [UNODC], 2016),
with an estimated value of US$20 billion per year (Wyler & Sheikh, 2008). Ranked
alongside the illegal trades in arms, drugs, and humans, the illegal trade in wildlife
involves millions of plant and animal species (Wyler & Sheikh, 2008). In 2013, the
United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice designated
wildlife crime as a “serious crime” punishable by a minimum of 4 years of liberty
deprivation, placing it among the most serious transnational crimes. Currently, the
United States remains one of the top importers of illegal wildlife (Petrossian et al.,
2016; UNODC, 2016; Wyler & Sheikh, 2008).
Indonesia and Fiji are among the major exporters of live coral to the United States,
coming in at first and fourth, respectively (Petrossian et al., 2019; Rhyne et al., 2012).
Indonesia accounted for 91% of the world’s exports in 2005 (Jones, 2008) and for
nearly 73% of United States live coral seizures from 2003 to 2012 (Petrossian et al.,

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