Little Compass Rose Caribbean Compass October 1998

Selling Off the Family Jewels

by Colleen Ryan

Whether the sale of coral jewelry is diminishing or whether the vendors simply avoid our boat is difficult to say. We still get the occasional coral salesman, and the stories of why his coral is okay ("It's deep water coral/it's dead coral/it's not off the reef/it's not coral") do not change. We were offered coral jewelry just the other day in Admiralty Bay in Bequia.

As divers we have a vested interest in preserving the coral, but divers can be as much a part of the problem as the solution even if the damage is accidental. Whether the damage is deliberate, as when harvested for jewelry, or accidental, as when kicked by a careless diver, is of no concern at all to a dying reef.

Although inadequate diving skills or the desire to earn a quick buck result in coral damage, the underlying problem is one of ignorance of reef ecology, of the role of reefs, and of the rules and regulations.

Our jewelry salesman said he did not know that it was illegal for him to take coral from the reef nor that it is illegal to take it into the US or Europe. A St. Vincent & the Grenadines Fisheries Division leaflet states: "No one is allowed to take or collect any coral without written permission of the Chief Fisheries Officer. A fine of EC$5,000 is payable." Trade in reef-forming corals and black corals is monitored by the Convention of Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). To take CITES-listed marine animals through Customs you must have a license from the country of export. In the EEC you need an import license, too. Anyone who is willing to walk a mile in another man's moccasins will understand the indignation of coral vendors when told that we will not buy coral. "What right have you to tell us what we can and cannot do on our own island?" None, in our opinion, but we do retain the right not to buy.

Ignorance of reef ecology is widespread, even among divers. The phrase "reef-forming corals" in the CITES regulations is a key one. Most people do not realise that in the case of true coral reefs they are not looking at coral growing on rock. Corals have built the entire structure and these reefs, not rocks, form natural sea defenses. Take the reefs away from the Tobago Cays and see how it changes the landscape! And how would the islands' east coast communities survive if their bays were not protected by the reefs from the persistent push of the ocean? And what would create the white sand beaches which draw tourists to the area?

The problem is that we see with our eyes, not with our brains. We enjoy the scenery when we dive on reefs covered with brightly coloured sponges and we adore the forests of gorgonians. Some of the sea plumes stand as tall as a diver and with their polyp tentacles extended they are lush and healthy looking. And they can grow quite quickly. On a 6-month-old wreck in Barbados we found 18-inch-tall gorgonians growing on the deck. But beautiful as these creatures are, they do not build coral reefs. They have an important role in maintaining a balance of marine life on the reef but they do not build structures.

Only hermatypic corals such as star and brain corals build reefs, and because they create limestone skeletons, they grow slowly and need to have the right conditions to thrive. They must have good light, they are sensitive to both water temperature and salinity, and they need clear water which will not deposit clogging sediment. It is amazing they survive at all, let alone build the largest structures of any living creature, including man.

Then along comes an inquisitive finger, or a hand looking for a steadying handhold or a wayward fin, not apparently the responsibility of the brain driving the attached leg. On the coral, the area of contact will probably die and the protective mucus coating will certainly be damaged. The coral is now vulnerable until it can effect repairs, which with a slow growth rate takes time. In the meantime algae may take possession of the wounded area or a boring sponge may take hold. Today's thumbprint-sized wound is tomorrow's dead coral head. For this reason, in some marine parks gloves are forbidden, forcing divers to take better control of their buoyancy, as they are reluctant to grab things with bare hands.

When so much threatens the coral careless divers, anchors, industrial and agricultural run-off what difference does a bit of coral jewelry make? The most popular coral for jewelry is black coral; it is also one of the biggest draws for dive tourists, but it is now a rare find above 100 feet.

Dive tourists will come back year after year to see live coral, but once it turns into a bangle it will satisfy only one tourist on one occasion. You can only sell off the family silver once.


Copyright© 1998 Compass Publishing