Thursday, October 28, 1999

Federal agency
tightens rules on
harvesting black,
other coral

Most coral harvesting
in Hawaii is done in waters
under state jurisdiction

By Pat Omandam


Advances in diving equipment and submersibles are among the reasons a federal agency wants to tighten rules on the harvesting of black coral and other types of coral in U.S. Pacific waters.

But even though the rules are more strict, they are not a problem for those who buy black coral from harvesters and process it into jewelry.

"We support it," said Carl Marsh, senior vice president for manufacturing and merchandising at Maui Divers, the largest purchaser of black coral in Hawaii.

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council last Thursday set rules on quotas and minimum sizes for black, pink and gold corals found in waters off the main and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

If approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, the rules would take effect within the council's purview: waters between three miles and 200 miles around Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam and the remote U.S. Pacific Islands.

Waters within three miles of Hawaii are under state jurisdiction.

Marsh said most of the black coral used by Maui Divers is from state waters and, to his knowledge, the resource is not overharvested.

Black coral grows in all oceans and is one of about 150 species of coral that live in tropical waters, normally at a depth of less than 300 feet. Black coral does not form reefs or heads, and instead resembles a tree growing on the ocean floor.

Since 1980, according to the council, most of the black coral commercially harvested around Hawaii has been from the Auau Channel, between Maui and Lanai.

A survey of the coral bed showed harvesting between 1975 and 1998 had no significant effect on the resource.

But in more accessible areas, such as "Stonewall" off Lahaina, which was intensely harvested in the 1970s, there have not been signs of recovery.

Don Schug, a staff economist for the council, said advances in diving equipment -- such as rebreathers and mixed-gas scuba gear, as well as manned and unmanned remote submersibles -- can extend the length of time and maximum depth of black coral harvesting.

Most of the harvesting done now is in state waters because standard diving gear restricts divers to waters less than 300 feet deep, he said.

The council also is concerned that demand for Hawaii's black coral could increase because of factors such as a decline in the importation of cut and polished black coral from Taiwan.

This "harvesting pressure" prompted the council to set a minimum harvest size for black coral of 4 feet in height, or a 1-inch base diameter, he said.

"I think it's more a precautionary measure that if this industry is kind of revived, if this fishery is revived, we just want to make sure that we have the best measures in place," Schug said.

"Suppose there was an expansion in the black coral fishery. Right now there are no measures in place for black coral. And what we are trying to do is anticipate a possible increase in the harvest level, and just have some measures on the books in case that happens."

A 4-foot black coral is about 20 years old, and reached sexual maturity about eight to 10 years earlier.

Schug said the rules give the coral a cushion allowing it to reproduce for several years before it can be legally harvested.

A state law passed last year requires that black coral have a base diameter of at least three-fourths of an inch before it can be harvested.

While no one so far has begun harvesting black coral in federal waters, Schug said at least one company has the permits to do so.

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