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Precious Red and Pink Corals Need Protection Under CITES

In last week's cover story, we looked at why reef-building corals are being plundered from the South Pacific and sent to the shores of Florida. But the curio trade isn't the only industry fueling the death of coral. 

For centuries, jewelry makers have harvested precious red and pink corals. These deep-water corals are cousins of the reef-building type seized in Tampa, which grow at shallower depths and much more quickly. While a reef-building staghorn coral might grow between 12-15 centimeters a year, a red coral might just grow a few millimeters in the same span of time. 

"Trade in precious and semi-precious corals, for beads and jewelry, is booming," says Ernie Cooper of WWF-Canada, a conservation group. "Increasingly, all roads lead to China. China is becoming the major hub of trade for these products... Some wholesalers are going through 10,000 strings of coral beads a day." 

Cooper points out that harvesting operations for the jewelry sector are extensive, and even include the use of small submarines equipped with saw-like devices to remove the life form from the ocean. 

Some estimates have suggested that between 30-50 tons of red and pink coral are harvested each year for the jewelry trade -- an alarming amount given that a bush-sized piece can take a few hundred years to grow. 

There is hope, however, that the destruction could be stymied. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently accepting comments for a meeting in 2013 at which it is considering a proposal to add red and pink corals to Appendix II of CITES. If the proposal is made and approved, these corals would be afforded the same level of protection as the stony reef-building corals. 

Corals of all types are fragile animals and already imperiled by myriad threats, ranging from polluted water to climate change to reckless boaters to coastal development. 

FWS says it's still undecided whether to recommend that pink and red corals be added to CITES. But to let the trade of slow-growing precious corals go unchecked is a display of environmental arrogance that we'll soon come to regret. 

A recommendation is the least we could do. 

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Chris Sweeney

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