For fashion's sake black coral is poached at decimating level

Poached from the seas, black corals become high-priced fashion accessories.
Poached from the seas, black corals become high-priced fashion accessories.

By Connor R Sullivan

There is something about black. Black dresses, black tie dinners, Johnny Cash, black pearl jewelry and a black pearl necklace. Black is classic. Black is cool. As long as it is not black coral. Black coral has been harvested to decimating levels. It can be found in the Caribbean waters off of Mexico and Belize. These countries are beginning to protect the coral, but it is still being poached and decimated.

Ambergris Caye is one of the many islands off the coast of main land of Belize located in Central America. It is filled with Mango groves and beaches protected by a reef. Flying into the little airport in San Pedro, crossing the tarmac and walking into town with the smell of salt air and the warm humid breeze, it is easy to relax and feel like a piece of paradise has been found. But out in the waters, by the reef, a battle is raging. The coral reef is a delicate environment. Belize has the second largest reef system in the world behind the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. This invites many tourists and divers. Many people snorkel and dive to explore the reef. Not all the tourists appreciate the delicate world they are entering. Even careful divers can leave behind damage. Passing under a ledge can leave air bubbles that are harmful to sea life. Careless divers and people with snorkels can easily kick out or brush up against the reef causing damage to the fragile environment.

A greater danger to some corals, black coral being one of them, is commerce. Black coral makes stunning jewelry. It is sleek and beautiful. It is also endangered. In Belize there are regulatory agencies that allow coral to be harvested by some commercial merchants. They are supposed to only pick up the dead coral that has fallen and lying on the bottom. While many of the merchants are vigilante and protective of the coral, there are still abuses occurring. Most merchants agree that protecting the coral is in their best interest. A rare commodity is a more valuable product and claims a better price.

In Mexico, many of the commercial divers justify their harvest by saying that there are vast beds deeper down. The current research doesn't support this statement. It has found few beds with marginal health. In addition, different depths provide different ecosystems. Harvesting shallow coral overwhelmingly affects a specific habitat. While black coral tends to be a deeper living coral, it is still an important part of the reef eco-system.