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By Catherine E. Toth

HONOLULU, Hawaii (January 31, 2000 – The Honolulu Advertiser)---With the help of a one-man submersible, Maui Divers Jewelry plans to harvest precious Hawaiian coral for the first time in 20 years.

Using one-man submersibles called Deepworker 2000, the local jewelry manufacturer says it will be able to harvest its own deepwater coral -- black, pink, gold and red -- without depleting the valuable marine resource.

The company used to harvest its coral in a Star II submersible it owned in the 1970s but stopped in 1976 because of the cost, said Bob Taylor, president and chief executive of Maui Divers Jewelry.

"We have been having to really carefully preserve the inventory of precious coral we had," he said.

"The key work is ‘selective,’ said Richard W. Grigg, University of Hawai‘i oceanography professor, who has studied precious coral for 40 years and advises companies on proper methods of harvesting.

He said the use of the one-man submersible allows harvesters to see and select coral colonies. The minimum harvesting size of pink coral, which grows at a depth of 1,200 feet or more, is 10 inches. For black coral, which grows in shallower waters, the minimum size is 3 inches. Anything smaller is restricted.

Grigg calculated that if harvesting is limited to colonies of minimum size, just 5 percent of the coral bed will be depleted each year. It takes 25 years for pink coral to grow to its minimum size, 15 years for black coral.

Taylor said he hopes the new method of harvesting will translate into more income. With roughly half the company’s sales coming from precious coral jewelry, Taylor expects this year’s sales to hit $30 million, up from $24 million last year.

Jewelry made from precious coral can cost from $100 or less to more than $30,000.

According to Scott Vuillemot, president and chief operating officer of American Marine Services Group, submersibles used in the 1970s were heavy and clunky. The Deepworker 2000 is small, lightweight, quick and easy to maneuver. It is controlled by foot pedals, allowing the diver to operate a robotic arm capable of mimicking the movements of the human arm.

Vuillemot said the submersibles, designed and built in Canada, are worth more than $600,000 each. While they have not begun harvesting deep-water coral yet, he said, they’ve done some exploratory operations.

According to Grigg, Hawai‘i’s waters contain some of the best black coral in the world, partly because of the strong ocean currents between islands and fewer species, which can interfere with the growth of the coral, competing for space on the ocean floor.

For additional reports from The Honolulu Advertiser, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Honolulu Advertiser.

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