A black coral colony is in the process of being overgrown by an alien snowflake coral at a depth of 300 feet.

Harvest of black
coral in jeopardy

Divers oppose a possible moratorium
on the jewelry crop in waters off Maui

» Hunting black coral exacts heavy toll

LAHAINA >> In more than 30 years of diving in the West Maui waters, Robin Lee has seen his share of sharks, but he fears a different kind of foe may sink him and other black coral divers.

"In the ocean, nowhere is safe. You are at the mercy of the ocean and predators, and now we're at the mercy of the politicians," he said. "It's going to shut us down, and it will shut down the industry."

The Western Pacific Fishery Management Council is scheduled Wednesday to consider putting a five-year federal moratorium on black coral harvesting in the Auau Channel between Maui and Lanai.

The meeting starts at 10:15 a.m. at Garden Lanai at the Ala Moana Hotel in Honolulu.

Within a 9-mile ocean span between Maui and Lanai, the state has a 3-mile jurisdiction around each island.

The proposed moratorium would affect the three miles of federal jurisdiction in the middle between the two islands, although recommendations have been made by the same federal scientific panel for a similar moratorium in state waters.

Paul Callaghan, chairman of the panel recommending the moratorium, said scientists have noticed a decrease in the regeneration of young black coral in the Auau Channel.

Callaghan said they don't know the reason for the decrease, so they would like to stop the harvesting until they can conduct scientific work to find the cause of the problem.

Scientists have noticed the alien soft coral Carijoa riisei, also known as "snowflake coral," overgrowing and smothering some black coral colonies.

National Marine Fisheries biologist Frank Parrish, chairman of the panel's precious coral plan team, said state officials using a submarine have detected less black coral than previously below 250 feet -- depths usually not visited by divers.

Parrish said the precious coral plan team did not recommend a moratorium to Callaghan's panel, but did call for a shift in harvesting rules.

He said in the last 30 years, harvesting by divers has been "handled well" in the 3-square-mile federal ocean area.

Parrish said because a state survey showed less coral at greater depths than visited by black coral divers, the team wanted to be cautious and recommended lifting a grandfather clause that allowed old divers like Lee to harvest plants 36 inches in height or 34 inch wide at the trunk.

Under Parrish's team proposal, new and old divers would have to harvest black coral that was 48 inches in height or 1 inch wide.

Richard Grigg, former chairman of precious coral plan team for 25 years, said he was shocked at the recommendation of a moratorium by Callaghan's panel.

"What they're doing is a radical departure ... It's environmental overkill. In fact, it's so severe in my opinion, they'll kill the fishery," said Grigg, University of Hawaii-Manoa oceanographer. "To shut it down is arbitrary and capricious. It's totally insensitive to the industry and the people."

Grigg said the moratorium would have severe economic consequences in an industry that employs about 1,000 workers and generates about $30 million in annual revenue.

Grigg said the handful of divers take about 2,000 to 3,000 pounds a year from the Auau Channel -- well below the biological limit of the resource, which he said is at least twice the harvested amount.

Grigg said Callaghan's panel is made up of smart, well-trained scientists but does not have firsthand knowledge of black coral in Hawaii.

Lee said only 10 percent of the black coral in the state comes from Hawaii and the remainder comes from foreign countries, many who don't practice selective harvesting and "rape" the ocean by using deep water drag nets, pulling everything indiscriminately from the bottom.

Shutting down the industry in Hawaii would only reward and increase the destructive drag-net practice, he said.

"We do only selective harvesting, pick the bigger trees," Lee said. "We know this channel regenerates."

Lahaina Harbor remains the base for black coral diving in Hawaii, where only a handful of people continue the risky art of deep ocean diving. In this photograph after a dive are, from left, Calvin Wada, Robin Lee, Nate Rosa and Henry Ah Sam.

Hunting black coral
exacts a heavy toll

The summer months of the hunt for black coral are the most treacherous.

That's when tradewinds whip up the strong currents in the Auau Channel called "the Molokai Express."

Black coral divers fit a particular physical profile and follow a certain regimen.

As a rule, none of the divers consume alcohol the day before a dive, and someone with high cholesterol is not a good candidate as a diver because their blood vessels are already constricted and diving further restricts circulation and could cause them to black out, he said.

"It's a real risky profession," said diver Robin Lee. "Everybody gets hurt."

Going down more than 200 feet takes a couple of minutes, then the battle begins against currents to keep your position and use a sledgehammer or ax to cut the tree-shaped black coral.

Pounding a sledgehammer in water requires tremendous exertion, and divers have to fight against "blacking out," he said.

As they work in a liquid atmosphere where visibility is like twilight, they also battle the accumulation of nitrogen in their bodies that gives them nitrogen narcosis, also known as "rapture of the deep," the sensation of being drunk, and could render them unconscious, he said.

Every 50 feet down is equivalent to drinking a dry martini on an empty stomach, some divers say.

Divers have 20 to 30 minutes at the most to work, then must begin their ascent very slowly, taking about 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours to reach the surface to rid themselves of nitrogen gas accumulated in their body.

Holding onto tools at the bottom of a 50-foot line attached to floating lift bags, they wait and decompress.

Breathing tanks with a mixture of oxygen and air are lowered to the divers.

"It's a scary business," Lee said. "That's why not very many people want to do this. There's so much danger out there."

Lee said he seen many tiger sharks -- and in one instance a great white shark -- swim within viewing range.

Lee said during those times, it's not good to show fear and what he does is stare directly back at the shark and sometimes leans his body forward to confuse them.

Other dangers include occasional whirlpools -- one that killed a black coral diver who was wrapped in his own line in 1997, Lee recalled.

"He got caught in one of the whirlpools. It wrapped all around his legs and body, and his tools got caught in both. He couldn't go up or down."

Another black coral diver who got the bends is paralyzed from the chest down, and a father and son died while black coral diving off Lahaina in 1996.

One man who dove on oil rigs quit after being unable to take the stress of seeing sharks circling near him.

Lee said he no longer teaches new people how to dive for black coral because he's experienced "too much tragedy."

Lee said he himself has had the bends seven times, causing him paralysis in his left leg.

His last problem with the bends caused him a double stroke and a bubble in his spine.

To recover, he had to take 31 trips to the hyperbaric chamber on Oahu.

"As your body ages, you don't get away with as much," he said.

At age 57, he said serves as an adviser to black coral divers and just dives occasionally as a hobby.

"It's more of an art form, diving for black coral. It's love of the deep and overcoming the eerieness of the deep. That's what we know how to do the best. So this is what we do."

| | |
E-mail to City Desk


© Honolulu Star-Bulletin -- https://archives.starbulletin.com