Ocean Watch
Susan Scott

Friday, June 10, 2005

Black coral harvesting
should end

I came home from Europe last week to find Hawaii's black coral in the news. This type of coral grows in deep waters barely reachable by specialized divers.

The luster of this animal's hard skeleton when polished makes black coral popular as jewelry.

Like other coral species in the world, though, black coral is in trouble. Last year, University of Hawaii oceanographers found, via research submarine, local black coral beds being overrun by an accidentally introduced species called snowflake coral.

Although not yet proved, it's likely this alien is a culprit in the observed decline of new black coral growth in the area. Therefore, a science committee of the Western Pacific Regional Management Council recently recommended that the council ban the harvesting of black coral in a 3-mile stretch between Maui and Lanai for five years.

This would allow researchers to study the situation and look for a remedy.

And there are remedies. One possibility is to introduce a species of nudibranch known to eat snowflake coral. (Nudibranchs are snails without shells.)

Another tactic might be interrupting the coral's reproductive process or larval development.

These ideas, of course, must be studied before any action is taken. But action is key. Of the 287 non-native marine invertebrates residing in Hawaiian waters, snowflake coral is the most invasive.

Black coral, however, is the base of a $30 million-a-year jewelry industry in Hawaii, and some who earn a living from it don't want harvesting stopped.

So the council, a Hawaii-based federal fisheries management organization for U.S. regions in the Pacific, rejected its own committee's advice.

Instead, it ruled that divers can only cut down colonies 4 feet or more tall, instead of the former 3 feet.

To continue killing mature individuals of a species when new colonies are decreasing doesn't seem like sound science to me. Apparently, it doesn't to some council members, either.

Why, though, is coral being chopped down at all? Hawaii's state "gemstone" is a living, breathing animal that provides food and shelter to a host of other animals. Living on and among black coral branches are winged pearl oysters, longnose hawkfish, Tinker's butterflyfish, 30 species of bryozoans and tiny gobies, among others.

Yes, people earn money from black coral, but in this industry the divers, as well as the animals, die. Several black coral divers in Hawaii have lost their lives while collecting, and others have been permanently disabled.

The price of coral jewelry is too high. In this era of accelerated extinction rates, we shouldn't be killing wild animals to decorate ourselves and our homes. There are other options for us nature lovers.

Last month in Paris, I bought a turtle carved from an Ecuadorian nut known as vegetable ivory. This piece looks like ivory, except no walruses or elephants died for it.

In Hawaii all other corals are protected by law. Black coral should be, too.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at http://www.susanscott.net.

E-mail to City Desk


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