THE HAGUE, Netherlands – The U.S. is leading a push to protect a type of red coral that grows deep in the world's oceans and seas, putting it at odds with Italian fishermen who have harvested the species for generations to make artwork and jewelry.
Under the U.S. proposal up for debate at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species meeting in The Hague, trade in several species of red coral, or corallium, would be regulated for the first time to ensure harvesting and global sales do not threaten their survival.
The proposal is expected to come up for a vote next week, worrying the fishermen and craftsmen of Torre del Greco, who harvest the coral for their livelihood in the town in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.
"We started 800 years ago and we want to continue," said Ciro Condito of Assocoral, a lobbying group representing the craftsmen in the Mediterranean town. "We are not an industry; this is our tradition, our culture. Coral is our life."
The U.S. is the world's biggest market for corallium products, importing more than 26 million pieces from 2001 to 2006, according to the Washington-based environmental group SeaWeb.
The value of corallium is boosted by the fact it is difficult to gather because it grows as deep as 3,280 feet. It is also rare because it grows so slowly — in some cases, just 0.06 inches or less per year — and takes up to seven years to reach maturity, with low reproduction rates.
Raw coral can sell for about $400 per pound at auction, and artworks or pieces of jewelry can cost anywhere from $20 to $20,000, depending on the size and quality.
One place corallium jewelry is no longer sold is Tiffany and Co.
"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 some parts of the world, corallium is still harvested using trawl nets dragged along the seabed — a practice that devastates the coral and threatens other marine wildlife that use coral colonies as a place to feed, mate and escape predators.
"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.
In the Mediterranean, trawl fishing has been replaced by scuba-diving harvesters and some countries have imposed quotas and minimum size limits.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," Bruckner said.