"This is the best possible decision to start getting the trade in these corals under some form of international control," said Ernie Cooper, a coral trade expert from wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC.
Delegates at the triennial meeting of the 171-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species put the coral on a list of protected wildlife, meaning exporters will now have to prove that the coral was harvested without threatening the species' survival before they can sell it.
Red coral, also known by its Latin name corallium, is a slow-growing deep-sea coral that grows all over the world but is harvested mainly in the Mediterranean and parts of the Pacific.
In the Mediterranean, it is gathered by scuba divers but in some other parts of the world fishermen still use trawl nets dragged along the seabed — a practice that devastates the coral.
Andy Bruckner of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who drafted the U.S. proposal adopted at the conference, welcomed its acceptance.
"Red coral is the most valuable and widely traded out of all the coral species, and CITES protection will help ensure the future of the species and the red coral industry," he said. "We are pleased that the international community has recognized the threats corallium face, and is taking the necessary steps to safeguard these species."
The United States, the world's biggest market for corallium products, imported more than 26 million pieces from 2001-2006, says the environmental group SeaWeb, which lobbied for the CITES protection.
Raw coral can sell for $900 per 2.2 pounds at auction and finished works of art or pieces of jewelry can cost anywhere from $20 to $20,000 depending on their size and quality.
Part of the reason the coral is so vulnerable is that it grows so slowly — in some cases just 0.06 inches or less per year — takes up to seven years to reach maturity and has low reproduction rates.
Italian craftsmen from the town of Torre Del Greco near Naples had lobbied against CITES regulating the trade, saying that they had been harvesting it in a sustainable way for 800 years and would continue to do so to preserve their livelihoods.
"We are not an industry; this is our tradition, our culture. Coral is our life," Ciro Condito of Assocoral, a lobby group representing the craftsmen, said before Wednesday's decision.