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
"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
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
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
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
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.