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Monday, February 5, 2001

Federal ban
hits isle coral

The Northwestern reef
preserve rules push out a
deepwater collector

By Pat Gee

The lone company in Hawaii collecting deepwater coral with submersible boats has stopped operating because of restrictions on harvesting.

Scott L. Vuillemot, president of American Deepwater Engineering, said President Clinton's declaration of the Hawaii's Northwestern Islands as a Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve in December was a "major blow" to his company.

He said the ban on harvesting precious coral within the reserve reduced by 75 percent the area within which he was allowed to operate. The executive order was just one of the "layer upon layer of negative" factors that have made it cost-prohibitive to continue operating his two Deepwater 2000 submersibles.

"Our operating cost is $1,000 an hour," said Vuillemot, testifying last week before the Scientific and Statistical Committee of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. He plans to relocate his operation to the Gulf of Mexico.

The precious coral industry is estimated to be worth $1 million, with about $25 million for associated business, according to council statistics.

But Kevin Kelly, fisheries analyst, said American Deepwater's potential contribution to the economy is not nearly as great as its value to the scientific community for gathering data. The company's high-tech submersibles -- two of only seven or eight in the world -- also have been used for other purposes, including naval salvage operations and collecting marine debris. But these contracts were not enough to help the company, he said.

Diving for pink, red and gold coral in waters deeper than 1,000 feet has not been done in Hawaii since 1989, since dredging the coral beds with nets has been prohibited, Kelly said. American Deepwater has been the first in 12 years to harvest coral, which it has done for a year and a half, he said.

Vuillemot said a particularly "arbitrary and restrictive" rule is the one defining the size of a coral bed. One proposed recommendation by the committee is to ban harvesting from any site that has less than 100 colonies, or "trees," of coral. It would also require extensive videotaping of the area to prove that harvesters have left the beds intact.

"One hundred trees in what size space? We need further definition," he said, noting density of trees can vary among islands.

The committee is also evaluating increasing the amount of coral allowed to be harvested from each bed in light of the executive order.

Further discussion will involve determining the age and growth rates of gold coral to set minimum size restrictions, as has been done for black and pink coral.

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