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Hacking the ox-blood harvest

THERE'S a market in Naples for the precious calcareous ramifications built by the corallium rubrom polyps as their residences in the Mediterranean.

Red coral may be found on the Costa Brava in two particular places but nobody is going to jail for taking it without a licence. It helps thieves that it is not a protected species internationally.

This substance goes to make ox-blood and firestone jewellery pieces. Last night one man told me it could also be found off Mayo. Like barnacles, I imagine. Somehow, I have my doubts.

These days there is a bit of a heave going on in Catalunya, the autonomous region of Spain, over coral poaching, with some fishermen in need of a financial injection to their poor take-home pay, hacking the stuff off the seabed at the Cabo de Creus and the Islas Medes natural park and marine reserve.

Irish holidaymakers, who land in Girona and set off touring, will know this coastline and its attractive 'de Mar' resorts down from the border with France.

Patrick O'Brian the author of the Aubrey-Maturin series of seafaring novels, had the naturalist-doctor, Maturin, raised here by a Catalan mother (and Irish father).

Last week in L'Estartit, a coastal town, two alleged poachers were back in court on charges of setting fire to the house of a coastal service inspector.

This all happened 10 years ago and, according to one source, the case could die a natural death. But police activity on poaching is active and recently 15kg of illegally uprooted coral were seized.

The authorities licence 12 fishermen each year to harvest the prize and last year they marketed just over 600kg. The coral is precious and must have time to grow and colonies of less than 7mm at the base must remain in the sea.

But this does not stop those without a licence. Like poachers everywhere, the forbidden fruit is the great attraction. Yet the future of the Costa Brava red coral deposits is precarious.

"They (the poaching fishermen) have systematically ripped it out," says scientist Sergi Rossi, a biologist at Barcelona University. They are ruthless, hacking off the coral at the base, damaging regeneration. The visible parts, red due to iron salts, take decades to recover.

Twenty years ago the average length of Costa coral was 12cm -- now it is 3cm.

But poachers caught in the act are leniently treated by the courts. Fines for misdemeanour are minimal. This frustrates the legal fishermen certainly.

The Mediterranean coral trade has been in existence since Roman times, and beforehand.

Two thousand years of trading with Italy continues with an important historic market also in India because of religious significance.

The Catalan harvest goes to Naples for jewellery crafting. Prices paid to the fishermen are difficult to ascertain. But on the US retail market some pieces are sold for around $600 (€448). It may all end, like inshore fishing, if some rigorous controls are not implemented. Catalunya has to get tough on conservation.

Joe Kennedy has been travelling in Spain and Portugal in recent times.

Sunday Independent