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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 2, 2005

Black-coral harvest rules please all

By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer

A compromise has been reached in the harvesting of black coral that officials hope will protect the valuable resource while at the same time sustain the industry.

The agreement was announced yesterday at a meeting of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council at the Ala Moana Hotel. Representatives from the council, as well as scientists and the black coral industry, reached the compromise, which was applauded by all involved.

The new rules will be enforced in federal waters, which are outside the state's jurisdiction of three miles from shoreline. But the state is expected to adopt the new guidelines, a state official said yesterday.

Under the old rules, divers were allowed to harvest black coral with a minimum base diameter of three-quarters of an inch or a coral "tree" at least 36 inches high. The new rules call for a 1-inch minimum base or at least 48 inches high.

The differences may seem small, but they translate into about five years in growth of the coral, said Rick Grigg, oceanography professor at the University of Hawai'i who has done research on black coral for 35 years.

"That's an important time period because it's when the black coral is reproductively active, so it means there's more of the reproductive population producing young that will seed the bed," Grigg said.

High-quality black coral is found primarily in the 'Au'au Channel between Maui and Lana'i and an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 pounds are harvested annually. The coral is used to make fine jewelry and is sold for $30 a pound to as much as $300 a pound.

Local divers account for about 10 percent of the black coral used to make jewelry in Hawai'i, with the remaining coming from the Philippines. But Grigg said the foreign black coral is a different species and of poor quality.

Grigg said the black coral isn't being over-harvested, but he said there are signs that the coral is reproducing at a lower rate than usual. He said the new rules should allow black coral populations to sustain themselves.

The compromise came as good news to Robin E. Lee, who has been diving for black coral for more than 30 years. One of the alternatives proposed by the council was a five-year moratorium on coral harvesting, which Lee said would have killed the industry.

"I'm pleased with the outcome of this meeting because it ensures the sustainability of the coral beds and it's an industry that's been around for a while," Lee said. "Everybody wants to see this succeed and the divers are willing to work with the scientists — federal and state — to see this thing happen."

Lee added that all of the black coral taken in Hawai'i for commercial purposes is harvested by two full-time and two part-time divers.

"It's quite a scary business," Lee said. "People who've tried it, they've given up pretty quick."

Reach Curtis Lum at culum@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8025.