5-year extension of moratorium on gold coral harvest in US territories proposed
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
The continuing uncertainties over scientific research on the growth of gold coral have prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service to propose a five-year extension of the current moratorium on the harvest of the precious deep-water gem in the U.S. Pacific islands.
The current moratorium, which expired on June 30, is being proposed to extend through June 30, 2028.
While it is abundant in Hawaii, the fisheries service said gold coral is likely to be found in the waters of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and the Pacific Remote Island Areas.
“NMFS intends this proposed rule to prevent overfishing and to stimulate research on gold corals,” the agency said in a proposed rule posted on the Federal Register last week.
“They are slow-growing and have low rates of natural mortality and recruitment,” the fisheries service said.
The agency said unexploited populations are relatively stable, and a wide range of age classes is generally present in those populations.
“Due to the great longevity of individuals and the associated slow population turnover rates, a long period of reduced fishing effort is required to restore a stock's ability to produce at the maximum sustainable yield if a stock has been over-exploited,” the fisheries service said.
Fishermen harvest precious corals by various methods, including by hand-harvesting and by submersible.
“Prior fishing effort harvested gold corals by submersible or tangle net dredges. There are several beds of gold corals ( Gerardia spp., Callogorgia gilberti, Narella spp., and Calyptrophora spp.) in the U.S. exclusive economic zone, generally 3–200 nautical miles from shore around Hawaii,” the fisheries service said.
Jewelry makers in the Pacific islands used coral to adorn their products.
However, the extraction of gold corals has been on pause since 2001 based on regulations and fishery ecosystem plans adopted by the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council for Guam, the CNMI, American Samoa and the Pacific Remote Islands.
The first official moratorium was implemented in 2007.
“Past research on gold corals indicated that the linear growth rate of gold corals is approximately 6.6 centimeters/year, suggesting a relatively young age for large coral colonies of up to 70 years,” the fisheries service said. “However, updated research using radiocarbon dating revealed that gold corals in Hawaii may live much longer than previously believed, from 450–2,740 years.”
“Subsequently, additional research offered new but potentially conflicting information about gold coral growth,” the agency said.
The agency cited a 2009 study, which estimated that the linear growth of gold coral could be 2.2 cm/year but was unable to measure discernable growth during repeated measurements of live colonies with submersibles.
“This research also identified previously unknown habitat requirements for gold coral, specifically that gold corals may depend on bamboo corals to provide required substrate for gold coral larvae,” the agency said.
“These moratoria have prevented the potential for overharvesting gold corals if a fishery had re-emerged, and they have allowed for research on gold coral biology,” the fisheries service said.
The agency also cited a 2019 research, which provided information on the slow development of Pacific deep-water coral communities, highlighting the limited recovery potential of gold coral if overharvested and the need to better understand the life history of the species and deep-sea coral ecology.
“The council continues to be concerned about uncertainties related to the growth rates and habitat requirements for gold coral, and recognizes that fishery managers need more research to inform appropriate measures for this fishery,” the fisheries service said.
“The proposed action would prevent the potential for overfishing and allow time for further research on gold corals that could inform sustainable management models and for the council to consider a long-term management strategy that will ensure the sustainability of the fishery,” the agency said.