Florida may limit soft coral harvest

Divers who collect fish and coral off South Florida's coast for the domestic and international aquarium trade face potential limits on the number of sea fans, sea whips and other soft corals they can harvest — potentially curbing business for the divers and the availability for consumers' aquariums.

Soft corals, also known as octocoral or gorgonian, are marine animals shaped like flowers, feathers and fans. Spread across the ocean floor like grass in a field, they consist of tiny polyps that use tentacles to catch prey. They are rarely eaten by sea animals, because they produce chemicals that taste bad to other marine organisms.

Divers explore the reefs off South Florida for octocorals, and transport them to aquarium supply shops and private customers all over the world. Octocorals are very popular in reef aquariums, because they bring diversity to the environment.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 62 commercial harvesters landed octocorals last year; the number of harvesters is capped at 167.

The 25 or so species of most commonly harvested include purple sea blades and sea whips, with prices ranging from $15 to $69.99.

"The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council intends to remove octocoral from its Coral and Coral Reef Fishery Management Plan," said Martha Bademan, of the FWC, which is planning to put restrictions on octocoral harvests. "So the FWC has agreed to manage the fishery in both state and federal waters."

Currently, there is a 50,000 colony quota in place for federal waters, the measure used in keeping track of how much is harvested, and no quota for state waters. The FWC is considering a quota of 70,000 colonies for state and federal waters combined. The FWC staff working on the proposal will present recommendations to June 8 and 9.

A final public hearing will be held in September at the FWC meeting in Naples, after which the agreed-upon harvest quota will take effect.

What impact would the limit have on divers?

"None as long as it is not lowered," said Tom Scaturro, owner of Tom's Caribbean Tropicals of Tavernier in the Florida Keys. "They are trying to lower the limit because we have never reached the limit before. We do not want that."

Michael Helmholtz, who works as a gorgorian collector at the Florida Marine Life Collectors, argues that with an estimated 8 billion to 28.8 billion octocoral colonies in the Florida Keys alone, the supply of octocoral cannot be exhausted.

"If you divide the number of divers by gorgonians, you discover that there are lots more than we can collect in one year," he said.

Henry Feddern, a commercial marine-life collector with 50 years of experience, thinks an octocoral harvest of 70,000 colonies is not out of place.

"This would be more than enough for the foreseeable future and not appreciably affect the octocoral population," he said. "Catching 70,000 colonies a year probably has the same effect on the octocoral population as plucking a few blades of grass has on a large lawn."

Source: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/palm-beach/fl-coral-harvest-20110514,0,3748310.story

xcxsadeoye@sun-sentinel.com, 954-300-9761

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