Coral harvesting could spread to Kaua’i

LIHU’E — The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council has voted to ask the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to increase the amount of coral that can be taken from deep-sea coral beds off the main Hawaiian Islands and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

To minimize damage to coral beds, the proposal calls for the collection of precious pink, gold and coral by small submersibles.

The rule change could encourage private exploration for deep-sea coral beds off Kaua’i, said Kevin Kelly, a fisheries analyst with the council.

“The industry has not spent any time harvesting off Kaua’i, but that doesn’t mean it is not there,” Kelly said. “Kaua’i is a definite possibility.” The Hawai’i commercial coral industry now harvests from seven known coral beds off O’ahu, Maui and the Big Island and in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The industry has not looked for new coral bed sites because of the high cost of exploration, Kelly said.

The new harvesting regulations would increase the allowable annual take from 1,000 to 5,000 kilograms of coral at new sites.

The fisheries council has said replacing the harvesting of coral by nets with the use of submersibles will prevent overharvesting, even though the amount of coral to be taken is higher.

The new regulations would ban the use of trawl and tangle nets, Kelly said. Their use has caused significant damage when they were dragged across coral beds, he explained.

The new regulations also are aimed at encouraging the commercial coral industry to begin explorations for new sites, Kelly said.

In addition, the regulations would limit the collection of gold coral to 1,000 kilograms and prohibit the taking of gold coral from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The restriction would support efforts to help perpetuate the Hawaiian monk seals; the gold coral kingdoms provide shelter for fish that are eaten by the seals.

Currently, the gold coral can be harvested only from beds found in the main islands.

The regulations also propose that no more than 1,000 kilograms of pink, red or gold coral be taken from any single bed.

Western Pacific estimates only 5 percent of the stock in a bed grows back each year following a harvest.

Permits for harvesting are issued yearly by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The quota for harvesting of coral beds depends on the abundance of coral within them, Kelly said.

The coral beds are found between 1,000 and 1,500 feet.

The submersibles that are used for harvesting are equipped with arms and collection baskets, lights, video cams and GPS units.

American Deep Water Engineering, based in Honolulu, collects the coral and sells them to companies such as Maui Divers and companies in Europe and Japan.

The Hawai’i precious coral industry has been estimated at $2 million.

Related to the protection of coral, the fishery council and other government agencies and organizations are working toward a federal plan to protect the eco-systems in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, including coral beds found at higher depths.

Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) or lchang@pulitzer.net

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