Precious coral fisheries of Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific Islands – Fisheries of Hawaii and U.S.-associated Pacific Islands
Richard W. Grigg
Precious corals have been used by humans for the fabrication of coral jewelry since antiquity (Grigg, 1989). Along with amber, precious coral may have also been used as a source of currency for trade by paleolithic man (Tescione, 1968). As a renewable resource in the sea, precious corals are thought to be the slowest growing organisms of any known fishery past or present. Pink and red coral fisheries exist in the Mediterranean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Black corals are distributed world-wide and small fisheries for black coral exist in all oceans. Hence, precious corals represent a unique and interesting case history of a fishery which is very old and quite widespread and one which renews itself very slowly. In this paper, these aspects of the fishery are considered but only as they relate to the modern history and management of precious coral fisheries in Hawaii and the Western Pacific during the past 35 years. Over this period in this area, two different precious coral fisheries have been developed; one in relatively shallow water between 30-100 m for several species of black coral, and the other, for pink, gold, and bamboo corals at depths of 400-1500 m. A brief history of both fisheries is presented including a description of their ecology and management of target species. Future research needs for both fisheries are described and future prospects of the precious coral industry are considered.
Briefly, all species of precious coral in the Western Pacific belong to one of three Orders within the Class Anthozoa, Phylum Coelenterata. The pink and bamboo corals, Corallium spp. and Lepidisis olapa, are in the Order Gorgonacea. The Hawaiian gold coral, Gerardia sp., is in the Order Zoanthidae and the black corals, Antipathes dichotoma, A. grandis, A. ulex, and Cirrhipathes anguina, are all in the Order Antipathidae. Gorgonians are octocorals while the Hawaiian gold and black corals are hexocorals.
History of the Precious Coral Fishery in Hawaii and the Western Pacific
Commercial beds of black coral were discovered in Hawaii in 1958 by Jack Ackerman and Larry Windley (Stewart, 1962a; Grigg, 1965). This discovery was located 4.8 km due west of Lahaina, Maui, at a depth of 30-75 m along a drop-off known as “stone wall” on the Lahaina Roads Reef. What Ackerman and Windley had discovered were populations of two species of exceedingly large black corals, Antipathes dichotoma and Antipathes grandis (Fig. 1). Subsequent research has shown that 12 additional species exist in Hawaiian waters but most of these occur at depths below 100 m, and none are large enough or are of sufficient quality to be of commerical value for coral jewelry (Grigg and Opresko, 1977).
The discovery of black coral in Hawaii in 1958 led to the establishment of a small cottage industry that produced curios and black coral jewelry in Lahaina, Maui (Stewart, 1962b). In 1960, John Stewart and Jack Ackerman started a company known as Maui Divers. Over the next ten years, Maui Divers grew steadily under the direction of Clifford Slater, and was joined by about a dozen other small companies. By 1969 the industry collectivelly was producing about $2 million gross retail sales; part of these sales included imports of pink coral jewelry from Taiwan and Japan.
In 1965, Japanese coral fishermen discovered a huge bed of commercial pink coral at about 400-m depth on the Milwaukee Banks in the Emperor Seamount Chain north of Midway Island near the northwesternmost end of the Hawaiian Archipelago. In terms of significance to the United States, only about 10% of the entire area (the so-called Midway Grounds) exist within the U.S. economic zone (EEZ). Nevertheless, as a result of this discovery, interest in precious coral resources dramatically increased in Hawaii. This stimulated new exploration in the high Hawaiian Islands and in 1966, Vernon Brock and Ted Chamberlain of the University of Hawaii discovered a small bed of pink coral Corallium secundum, near 400 m depth off Makapuu, Oahu (Fig. 2). In the following three years, a small group of fishermen dredged the Makapuu Bed for pink coral on a small scale using tangle nets (Fig. 3).
In 1970 a long-term research program on precious corals began at the University of Hawaii and this led to the development of a selective harvesting system utilizing a manned submersible (Grigg et al., 1973; Figure 4). In 1973, Maui Divers of Hawaii incorporated this system and began a commerical operation of selective harvest for pink, gold, and bamboo coral which lasted until 1978. The gold coral (Gerardia sp.) and bamboo coral (Lepidisis olapa) (Muzik, 1978) co-exist within the same depth zone and habitat with Corallium secundum. The Maui Divers operation lasted 6 years but was discontinued in 1978 because of high operating costs. The annual harvest of pink and gold coral from the Makapuu Bed during this period is given in Table 1. Since this time, the industry in Hawaii has relied on stockpiles of gold coral and exports of pink and red corals (Corallium spp.) mostly from Taiwan and Japan. The only other attempt to harvest pink corals domestically within the Western Pacific EEZ was in 1988, when crew members of the vessel Kilauea used nonselective tangle nets at Hancock Seamount. Their catch was only 450 kg of Corallium secundum and most of the colonies harvested were dead and of low quality.
Table 1.–Annual harvest of pink and gold coral from
the Makapuu Bed (kg).
Year Gear secundum Gerardia sp.
1966-69 Dredge 1800 0
1970-72 No harvest 0 0
1973 Submersible 538 0
1974 Submersible 2209 734
1975 Submersible 1385 621
1976 Submersible 400 363
1977 Submersible 1421 329
(Jan-June) Submersible 474 50
1979-92 no harvest 0 0
Because Hawaii’s precious coral industry continues to be dependent on sources of raw material outside the US EEZ, it is important to analyze trends in the supply of Corallium spp. Pacific-wide. From the time of the major discovery of Corallium secundum on the Milwaukee Banks in 1965 to the present, the annual supply of both pink and red corals has been extremely erratic. The harvest of shallow water Corallium by Japanese and Taiwanese coral fishermen first peaked in 1969 when production Pacific-wide reached 150 metric tons. Following this boom year, production fell precipitously and remained low for the next five years (Grigg, 1984). Accurate statistics for these years are not available. Then in 1978, a deep-water undescribed species of Corallium (sp. nov.) was discovered by a Japanese fishermen at depths between 900 and 1500 m on the Emperor Seamounts. While the color of this species is spotty (sometimes called Scotch), varing between pink and white, it was extremely abundant, and like the 1965 discovery, it produced a “coral rush.” In the peak year of 1981, over 100 coral boats from Japan and Taiwan fished the Midway Grounds and production neared almost 300 metric tons (t) Pacific-wide (Table 2). Unfortunately, this intensive fishing effort led to a gradual depletion of the resource, illustrating the well established pattern for all precious coral fisheries: exploration, discovery, exploitation, and depletion (Grigg, 1989).
[TABULAR DATA 2 OMITTED]
By 1991, production Pacific-wide stood at an all time low of 2,930 kg (Table 2) and prices of raw material were at unprecedented highs. According to the American Institute in Taiwan, coral production in Taiwan fell to 1 t in 1990 but exports drawn from previous year stockpiles were 63 t of coral products. As stockpiles of the resource are gradually reduced worldwide, new production will depend on the discovery of new precious coral beds. This boom and bust cycle of harvest and supply dramatically illustrates the need for management of the fishery. Management has been hampered by the multinational character of the fishery and because many precious coral beds exist in international waters.
In contrast to the pink and red coral fishery in the Pacific, the black coral fishery in Hawaii is relatively stable. While demand has fluctuated considerably over the years since its discovery in 1958, the supply of black coral has never failed to meet demand. In the early years of the industry during the 1960’s and early 70’s, as much as 10,000 kg were harvested annually from the black coral beds off Maui and Kauai. During the late 70’s and early 80’s the demand for black coral was greatly reduced, being replaced by a higher consumer interest in pink and gold coral. However, since about 1986, demand for black coral has been steadily increasing. Consumption by one company, Maui Divers of Hawaii, Ltd., illustrates this trend (Table 3).
Table 3.–Consumption of Hawaiian black coral by
Maui divers of Hawaii, Ltd., 1982-92.
Year Weight (all species combined), kg
1992 (Jan-July) 1238
Production by Maui Divers of Hawaii accounts for more than 50% of all locally produced black coral jewelry in the State of Hawaii. Today, considerably less black coral is used for fabrication than during the 60’s and 70’s because the jewelry items produced are smaller and of higher quality and because modem cutting procedures are much more efficient than in the past. In November of 1987, black coral was named the State “Gem” and this has increased consumer interest considerably.
Over the years, the stability of the industry has been aided by the availability of inexpensive black coral from the Philippines and Tonga (Harper, 1988). These sources have filled the demand for low quality but high volume jewelry products. Also black coral resources in Hawaii have been well managed by local fishermen who voluntarily do not harvest colonies below 48 inches (1.2 m) in height. This size limit has been adopted by the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council and has been recommended to the State of Hawaii and is based on the growth rate and reproductive pattern of Antipathes dichotoma and calculations of maximum sustained yield (Grigg, 1976).
Overall, the precious coral industry in Hawaii has steadily grown over the past 34 years since its inception. At the retail level today, the precious coral industry is valued at about $25 million and consists of about 100 retailers.
A small but stable black coral fishery in Hawaii continues to thrive while the fishery Pacific-wide for Corallium spp. has drastically declined owing to depletion of the resource. Present demand for Corallium is being met largely by the utilization of stockpiles. The future of the Corallium fishery will depend on the discovery of new beds of commercial grade species of pink and red coral.
Ecology of precious corals
The ecology and patterns of life history of various species of precious corals have been reviewed by Grigg (1974, 1976, 1984, 1989). In general, most species of precious corals are slow growing, have low rates of recruitment and mortality, and consequently are relatively long lived. The oldest colonies of Corallium secundum in the Makapuu Bed off Oahu probably reach an age of 75 years, and the largest colonies of Antipathes dichotoma and A. grandis may even be older. Populations of both Corallium secundum and both black coral species appear to be recruitment limited (Grigg, 1988). In favorable environments for Corallium secundum and A. dichotoma in Hawaii, populations are relatively stable suggesting that recruitment and mortality are approximately in steady state. However, in suboptimal environments, the age frequency distributions of both species are very uneven or truncated probably owing to episodic mortality events (personal observation).
Mortality is most often the result of smothering by sediments and by bioerosion of the substrata which leads to toppling of colonies. Fragmentation and reattachment (asexual reproduction) appears to rarely occur. Most species of precious coral are uni-sexual or dioecious, i.e. the sexes are separate. The age of reproductive maturity of Corallium secundum and A. dichotoma is similar, occurring about age 12-13 which is about one-sixth the longevity of the oldest colonies. Fertilization of Hawaiian precious corals appears to take place externally within the water column. The duration of the larval stage is unknown for most species of precious coral, but studies of one species, Corallium rubrum, in the Mediterranean Sea suggest that larvae of this species remain competent for several weeks (Vighi, 1970). In general, settlement is most successful on clean swept surfaces exposed to strong bottom currents. The larvae of both species of Antipathes in Hawaii are known to be negatively phototactic which explains why they are not found at shallow depths (< 30 m) and are most abundant beneath overhangs and on other dimly lit surfaces (Grigg, 1965).
The ecological requirements of all species of precious coral in the western Pacific can be briefly summarized as follows. All species require a firm (rocky) substratum free of sediment and most thrive in areas swept by moderate to strong currents. All species lack symbiotic algae in their tissues (ahermatypic) and most are found in deep water below the euphotic zone (Table 4). All species are filter feeders and many are fan-shaped, a growth form which maximizes contact of feeding surfaces with particles or microplankton entrained in the water column. Light and temperature appear to influence larvae more than adults. The lower depth limit of A. dichotoma and A. grandis coincides with the top of the thermocline in the high Hawaiian islands. Larvae may avoid settling deeper where lower temperature may prevent reproduction (Grigg, 1977, 1984). Species of Corallium exist below the euphotic zone at depths between 350 and 1,500 m where temperature varies between 14[degrees] and 3[degrees]C.
Table 4.–Depth zonation of all species of precious
coral in the western Pacific.
Species and common name Depth range (m)
Angle skin coral 350-475
Corallium sp. nov.,
Midway deepsea coral 1000-1500
Gerardia sp., Hawaiian gold coral 300-400
Lopidisis olapa, bamboo coral 350-400
Antipathes dichotoma, black coral 30-100
Antipathes grandis, pine black coral 45-100
Antipathes ulex, fern black coral 40-100
Antipathes anguina, wire black coral 20-60
The life history attributes of all species of precious corals in the western Pacific make these living resources highly vulnerable to over-exploitation in unmanaged fisheries. This is because many year classes are exposed to harvesting at the same time. Virtually decades of accumulated standing stock can be collected during short intensive periods of fishing. Indeed, the historical pattern of the fishery worldwide is one of discovery, exploitation and depletion.
Historically, species of Corallium have been harvested non-selectively using various types of dredges. In the Meditteranean Sea a heavy wooden cross outfitted with tangle netting (The Cross of Saint Andrew) is dragged across the bottom where corals are broken and entangled in the mesh. Japanese and Taiwanese fishermen also use tangle gear although theirs is simpler in design, consisting of either stones or iron bars with attached netting (Fig. 3). Since the inception of SCUBA, shallow water colonies in the Meditteranean Sea (up to 110 m in depth) have been harvested selectively by divers. In Hawaii the black coral fishery also employs SCUBA divers who selectively harvest colonies with axes, hammers, and saws (Fig. 4). The first selective harvest of Corallium in which a submersible was used by Maui Divers of Hawaii in 1973. This was accomplished with the use of a sophisticated cutter, claw, and basket assembly that was attached to the submersible (Fig. 5, Grigg et al., 1973). Since 1983 an unmanned submersible (robot) has been used in Japan to harvest selective species of precious coral in traditional seas (Table 2).
Precious coral resources in Hawaii and the Western Pacific fall under the management authority of the State of Hawaii and the U.S. Federal government. The State has clear jurisdiction over resources out to three miles but also claims authority over inter-island waters. Hence the State has declared jurisdiction over the Makapuu Coral Bed situated 9 km (6 miles) off Makapuu in the channel between Oahu and Molokai. Federal jurisdiction extends from 3 miles outside the State of Hawaii, Guam, and American Samoa to 200 miles, and from the shoreline of all U.S. possessions in the Western Pacific (Johnson Atoll, Kingman Reef, and Palmyra, Wake, Jarvis, Howland and Baker islands) to 200 miles. This area is defined as the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Presently black corals in Hawaiian waters are managed by the State of Hawaii. Fishermen are required to have commercial fishing licenses and report their catch monthly to the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources. A state regulation has been drafted which sets a minimum size of 48 inches in colony height and 3/4″ in basal diameter for the harvest of A. dichotoma and A. grandis. At the present time, black coral divers in Hawaii comply voluntarily with this draft regulation.
Precious coral resources within the U.S. EEZ (Fig. 6) are managed by the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (WESTPAC), under a Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for precious coral (Dep. of Commerce, 1980). The FMP, finalized in September 1983, allows for domestic and foreign fishing by regular or experimental permits and requires logbooks of the permittees. Specific regulations contained in the FMP are as follows:
The FMP and regulations outline and classify the known beds of precious corals within the Western Pacific Region, and designate harvesting method and the amount of corals that can be harvested. There are four bed classifications: 1) Established Beds, 2) Conditional Beds, 3) Refugia Beds, and 4) Exploratory Permit Areas. Established beds are ones with a history of harvest, and optimum yields have been established on the basis of biological stock assessment techniques, and selective harvesting gear (submersibles or remote control harvester vehicles) is required. Makapu’u is the only designated Established Bed. Conditional beds are ones for which yields have been estimated on the basis of bed size relative to established beds with the assumption that ecological conditions at established beds are representative of conditions at all other beds. Four beds are designated as conditional beds: Kea-hole Point, Kaena Point, Brooks Banks, and 180 Fathom Bank. Nonselective harvesting is permitted only in the two conditional beds in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands (Brooks and the 180 Fathom Banks). A refugia bed is one set aside to serve as a baseline study area and possibly reproductive reserve. No harvesting of any kind is permitted in Refugia. Presently, the WESTPAC bed, between Nihoa and Necker Islands, is the only designated Refugia. Exploratory permit areas are unexplored portions of the EEZ in which coral beds are almost certain to exist, but no beds have yet been located. There are four exploratory permit areas; one surrounding the Hawaiian Islands, another that encompasses Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, a third that encircles American Samoa, and a fourth, which was created by Amendment 1 to the FMP, which includes the EEZ’s of all the remaining U.S. Pacific Island possessions. Either selective or nonselective harvest gear is permitted in exploratory permit areas except in the Hawaii exploratory area around the Main Hawaiian Islands.
Specific weight quotas and size limits have been determined based on estimates of maximum sustainable yields and optimum yields. For example, the established bed at Makapu’u has a 2-year harvest quota for selective gear only: 2,000 kg for C secundum, 600 kg for Gerardia sp. and 500 kg for L. olapa. Only colonies of C. secundum taller than 10 inches can be harvested. Quotas of 1,000 kg of all species of precious coral combined, exist for each of the EEZ exploratory areas. Foreign fishing is allowed in exploratory areas, if the quotas are not taken by domestic fishermen. Maximum sustainable yields were calculated by using the Beverton and Holt cohort production model (Beverton and Holt, 1957) for Corallium secundum (Fig. 2, 7) and the Gulland Model (MSY = 0.4 M Bo) where m = natural mortality and Bo is the virgin biomass, for Gerardia and Lepidisis.
Having described the management measures established to conserve precious coral resources in Hawaii and the Western Pacific, it is important to evaluate their effectiveness over the history of the fishery. For pink corals, management efforts have been successful for the domestic fishery; however, poaching by foreign fishing has frequently occurred within the U.S. EEZ and is difficult to control.
Considering the domestic coral fisheries first, the cumulative harvest of Corallium from the Makapu’u bed between 1966 and 1978 was about 32% of the standing stock. The average annual harvest was 685 kg, somewhat less than the best estimate of MSY, near 1,000 kg. Surveys of the Makapu’u bed in 1983 and again in 1985 showed substantial recovery at rates in close agreement with model predictions in the FMP (Grigg, 1988). For black coral, the combined MSY for beds off Maui and Kauai is 6,250 kg/yr (Grigg, 1976). Harvest levels of black coral above MSY occurred only in the earliest years of the fishery (Table 3) and supply has always been unable to meet demand. Only the most accessible black coral beds off Lahaina, Maui, have been depleted.
Foreign poaching has been a serious problem in the past. During the 1980’s, Japanese and Taiwanese coral vessels continuously violated the EEZ near the Hancock Seamounts. In 1985, about 20 Taiwanese coral draggers reportedly poached about 100 tons of Corallium from seamounts within the EEZ north of Gardner Pinnacles and Laysan Island. Absence of poaching since that time could indicate that the resources in these areas have been economically exhausted. A research program is currently planned to resurvey the Hancock Seamounts in 1994 with the University of Hawaii research submersible Pisces V, in order to assess the present condition of precious coral resources in this area.
Research Needs and Future Prospects
The most pressing need of the precious coral fishery (and industry) is stock assessment; first in order to describe the status of the stocks within established grounds, and second, to discover new areas. Without substantial efforts to explore and discover new grounds, the precious coral fishery will undoubtedly continue to decline. The problem will become increasingly more serious as existing stockpiles accumulated during the early 1980’s are gradually exhausted.
The most promising exploratory areas appear to be in southern oceans. Channel waters around Madagascar and Tasmania (Grigg and Brown, 1991) are particularly promising areas and scattered occurrences of large colonies of Corallium spp. have been reported (exact locations are well guarded secrets). Considerable exploration has been conducted in the tropical Pacific by CCOP-SOPAC (Committee for Coordination of Joint Prospecting for Mineral Resources in South Pacific Offshore Areas), and Corallium spp. have been recorded from many localities (Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, and W. Samoa), but unfortunately not in commercial quality or abundance (Harper, 1988). Most exploratory dredging by CCOP-SOPAC, however, has been at depths between 200 and 500 m, and virtually nothing is known about the potential of deeper water resources (such as Corallium sp. nov. which occurs at a 1,000-1,500 m depth by the Emperor Seamounts).
Another important research question concerns recovery rates (recruitment and growth) in areas which have been heavily harvested. A proposal to assess the stocks on the Hancock Seamounts using the Pisces V submersible has been accepted by the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory at the University of Hawaii and is presently scheduled for the summer of 1995. The whole area of population dynamics of precious corals is in need of further research.
The mariculture of precious corals is an exciting new area of research. A new laboratory for the biological, economic, and technical research of precious corals has recently been established in Kochi, Japan, in order to attempt the culture of precious coral (Sadao Kosuge, Director of the Institute of Malacology, Tokyo. Personal commun. 1992). To date, colonies of Coralliumi japonicum have been maintained alive in culture for over one year but growth rates are very slow and colonies have not been induced to reproduce. However, the research is still in a very early stage.
While a complete analysis of the economics of the precious coral fishery is beyond the scope of this paper, it is important to mention that this is another area in need of future research. The worldwide glut of Corallium precious coral produced during the boom years of the early 1980’s caused prices to fall sometimes even below break-even costs for Taiwanese and Japanese coral fishermen and many vessels dropped out of the fishery during this time. The future supply of Corallium to the Hawaiian industry will probably continue to depend on exports from these countries; therefore, what happens to the Japanese and Taiwanese fleet is important. Exploration is very expensive and there appears to be little Japanese or Taiwanese interest in wide ranging fishing expeditions at the present time. For this reason, the future of the industry can only be described at this juncture as uncertain. Prices will undoubtedly continue to climb. The raw material for Midway deep-sea coral is still (1990) reasonable at about $150/kg but prices for high quality pink and red Corallium peaked in 1990 at $3,069/kg and 16,103/kg, respectively (D. Ancona, U.S. Embassy, Tokyo. Personal commun. 199 1). The future of the industry would appear to depend on either successful future exploration or a breakthrough in the mariculture of precious corals.
As for the future of the black coral fishery, at least in Hawaii, it appears to be secure in terms of both supply and demand for the resource. The management of other species of precious coral in Hawaii and the Western Pacific will continue to be covered by the existing FMP of WESTPAC. Regarding the control of foreign fishing in international waters, it is in the best interest of the United States, Japan, and Taiwan to enter into an international treaty for the purpose of conservation of precious corals. However, before this can be achieved, an impetus for such implementation must be initiated by one or all three countries. Based on the principle of common heritage embodied in the International Law of Sea (LOS) convention, and on articles of the LOS Treaty which urge agreements between member countries on measures to conserve living resources within and beyond EEZ’s, the Western Pacific Fishery Council has requested that the U.S. State Department enter into multilateral arrangements with Japan and Taiwan for jointly managing the precious coral fisheries in the Pacific.
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Richard W. Grigg is with the Dept. of Oceanography, 1000 Pope Rd., University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822. Views of opinions expressed or implied are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA.
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