In the most biodiverse marine ecosystems in the world, SeaWeb's Asia Pacific program is strengthening voices for ocean conservation by bridging the worlds of marine science, journalism, and public policy. We work to amplify and clarify the messages of local scientists and ocean experts, and to connect journalists and decision-makers to ocean issues and specialists.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

First big Corallium press hit - version 1

Wildlife conference to mull protection for deep sea coral
By Mike Corder THE HAGUE, Netherlands, AP

Like miniature forests of richly colored trees, red coral decorates pockets of the world's seas and oceans from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. It also adorns the necks and arms of the rich and fashion conscious.

The trade in the slow-growing, deep sea coral is now so widespread that there are fears for its survival.

The United States is leading a push to have the coral, whose scientific name is corallium, protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a global conservation body meeting until June 15 in The Hague. The U.S. proposal will be debated and put to a vote next week.

That has worried the fishers and craftsmen of Torre del Greco, a town in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius volcano on Italy's Mediterranean coast, who have harvested the coral for generations and turned it into art works and jewelry. "We started 800 years ago and we want to continue," said Ciro Condito of Assocoral, a lobby group representing the craftsmen. "We are not an industry; this is our tradition, our culture. Coral is our life."

Under the U.S. proposal up for debate at the CITES meeting, trade in several species of corallium would be regulated for the first time to ensure harvesting and global sales do not threaten their survival.

In some parts of the world, corallium is still harvested using trawl nets dragged along the seabed -- a practice that devastates the coral.

"It is like clear cutting a forest -- it pulls everything up, there's a lot of loss and you remove the large colonies, the small colonies and cause a lot of damage to the habitat," said Andy Bruckner of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That affects not just the coral but also other marine wildlife that use coral colonies as a place to feed, mate and hide from predators.

The United States, the world's biggest market for corallium products, imported more than 26 million pieces from 2001-2006, says environmental group SeaWeb. The group has launched a campaign, "Too Precious to Wear," aimed at raising awareness of the coral's vulnerability.

Its value is boosted by its rarity and the fact that it is hard to gather because it grows as deep as 1,000 meters (3,280 feet). Raw coral can sell for US$900 (euro670) per kilogram at auction and finished works of art or pieces of jewelry can cost anywhere from US$20 (euro15) to US$20,000 (euro15,000) depending on their size and quality.

It is also rare because it grows so slowly -- in some cases just 1.5 millimeters (0.06 inches) or less per year -- takes up to seven years to reach maturity and has low reproduction rates.

One place you can no longer buy corallium jewelry is a Tiffany and Co. store. The high-end U.S. jeweler no longer sells any coral products.

"Until we are convinced that coral harvesting is sustainable and does not threaten marine ecosystems, we believe this cautionary principle should continue to apply," the company says on its Web site.

In the Mediterranean, trawl fishing has been replaced by scuba divers harvesting the coral and some countries have imposed quotas and minimum size limits. But the coral is still struggling.

"We're afraid that if things continue the way they are it could lead to species being depleted from large areas," said Bruckner.

Coral jewelry was popular in the 1980s and went out of fashion in the 1990s. But it is now making a comeback, increasing pressure on stocks.

"I love coral pieces and jewelry, it's beautiful," said Elizabeth Neeley of SeaWeb. "But the unfortunate reality is that what's going on underneath the sea is not."

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