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Monday, March 25, 1996

Black coral:  Beautiful, but comes at a high price

A couple of years ago, I went strolling through a Manila marketplace with several American acquaintances. The shopkeepers there beckoned us to their booths with animated stories.

One seller of black coral told of the rarity of the precious material and the great danger divers risk to collect it.

"You shouldn't buy any," one husband told his wife as she lingered over the black coral display. "I think it's endangered."

"Just because it's hard to get doesn't mean it's endangered," the woman snapped. "Besides, it's already dead. It would be terrible to let it sit here and go to waste."

The woman bought the jewelry.

The man fumed in anger.

I remember this scene vividly now that the tragic deaths of two Maui divers has brought black coral to the headlines. Who was right back there in Manila? The question is as mysterious as the animal itself.

Black coral grows in all oceans, ranging from just below the tide line to depths of thousands of feet.

Most of the 150 known species live in tropical waters below about 300 feet. The few that thrive in shallower water, 60 feet or less, usually grow in caves and under ledges where light is dim.

Black corals thrive in such darkness because they don't have symbiotic plants in their tissues, like reef corals do.

Another difference between these two coral types is that black coral does not form reefs or heads. A colony of black coral looks like a tree growing up from the ocean floor. The largest of such trees in Hawaii reach about 6 feet tall, averaging 2 inches of growth per year.

The trunks and branches of black coral (and some pink and gold species) are as hard as ivory and pearl. After cutting, grinding and polishing, artisans can fashion these coral skeletons into gleaming treasures, popular among a wide range of people.

This coveting of hard coral is not a new human fancy.

Ancient Greeks and Romans collected the unusual animals, thinking they held magical or healing powers.

In Asia, black coral has been sold as scepters, divining rods and amulets to ward off evil or injury. In North Africa, black coral was believed to neutralize the effects of the "evil eye."

In Hawaii today, countless shops sell millions of dollars worth of pink, black and gold coral each year.

"Is this OK?," friends ask me. Is black or pink or gold coral endangered?

Technically, no. A Hawaii researcher reports that there's plenty down there, far beyond the reach of human hands. Therefore, even though it may not be visible, most species are doing just fine.

Also, Hawaii divers say they are careful to take the trees in a responsible, sustainable manner, harvesting only mature growths.

Biologists, however, don't know much about the living animals because so few remain in areas shallow enough to study. Says one book: ". . . (black corals) are an excellent case where careful observation of the living colony can provide . . . insights unobtainable from the dead skeleton alone."

Another source states: "Extensive gathering of black coral branches in the Philippines and in Hawaii, for making jewelry, is seriously depleting stocks of this handsome coral."

Another aspect to consider in a black coral purchase is the cost in terms of human life. Because they must dive so deep to get it, deaths are relatively common worldwide among black coral divers.

Each person must search their own conscience to decide whether to buy black coral. For me, the questions remaining about its growth, and the deaths of divers collecting it, makes the price of black coral too high.



Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, "Ocean Watch",
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,