Friday, June 10, 2005
Black coral harvesting
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
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
And there are remedies. One possibility is to introduce a species of
nudibranch known to eat snowflake coral. (Nudibranchs are snails without
Another tactic might be interrupting the coral's reproductive process or
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
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
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,