A SURVEY of local reefs was launched yesterday with the revelation that the SAR's wealth of coral could be plundered with impunity. Reefs survive in Hong Kong's murky waters despite coastal development, pollution and overfishing but most coral remains unprotected, at the mercy of the growing aquarium trade. While importing coral into the SAR is illegal without permits, most reefs in Hong Kong can be harvested legally because existing law on marine life covers only fish. Only coral in protected areas - at Hoi Ha Wan, Yan Chau Tong and Cape D'Aguilar - is protected under the Marine Parks and Reserves Ordinance. The legal loophole has sparked concern among conservationists, who yesterday dived the Ninepin Islands, as part of the Reef Check 97 survey. Eric Yau Po-ming, environmental consultant at Binnie Consultants and leader of the Ninepins dive team, said there was nothing to stop the harvesting of coral for the aquarium trade. Much was then sold on the street, particularly in Mongkok. 'If you go down to Tung Choi Street it is not just exotic coral, there are species being caught locally,' he said. Threatened on all sides, the fragile reef could not cope with further exploitation, he said. Chairman of the Hong Kong Marine Conservation Society, Dr Brian Darvell, said 'in principle' harvesting coral 'should be illegal'. Hong Kong Reef Check co-ordinator Marc Smith-Evans said: 'People are prepared to pay significant amounts of money for a couple of chunks to put in their tanks.' Agriculture and Fisheries Department director Frank Lau Sin-pang admitted existing legislation covering flora and fauna did not protect coral outside marine parks. He said the department was 'educating the fishermen not to take coral'. There were only 'isolated incidents' of harvesting coral.