Trade in red and pink corals prized as jewelry for 5,000 years will be restricted to try to help the species recover after drastic overexploitation, a U.N. wildlife conference agreed on Wednesday.
Countries at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted 62 to 28 to start regulating export of corals, now harvested mainly in the Mediterranean and Western Pacific in a business worth millions of dollars.
"Regulation of trade is necessary to ensure they do not become threatened with extinction," said Andrew Bruckner, a U.S. official who authored the proposal at the June 3-15 talks. He said that current harvesting was depleting stocks.
Necklaces made of the red and pink corals, collectively known as Corallium, can cost up to $20,000. Many other species of coral are already protected by CITES.
"Corallium, the most valuable of the precious corals, has been fished for over 5,000 years," the U.S. proposal said, adding that millions of items and thousands pounds a year were traded internationally.
The decision, imposing restrictions on international trade, will take effect in 18 months' time partly because of worries by southern European producers that they would need time to adapt to new trade rules.
Overharvesting and other threats including pollution, trawling of the seabed by fishing vessels and global warming are among threats to the corals, found from the tropics to temperate waters.
Conservationists hailed the decision.
"This is the best possible decision to start getting the trade in these corals under some form of international control," said Ernie Cooper, a coral trade expert from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
SeaWeb, a conservation group, also applauded the decision and said that raw red coral sold for $100 to $900 per kilogram at auction. It said the Italian town of Torre del Greco, a center of the trade, made coral profits of $174 million in 1999 alone.
CITES is one part of a global drive to help protect species, and is increasingly looking at commercial types such as corals, fish and timber alongside efforts to safeguard iconic animals such as tigers and elephants.