Red coral left ‘unprotected’.

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The UN wildlife trade body on Sunday rejected by secret ballot a proposal to require trade and scientific monitoring for precious red and pink corals harvested in the Mediterranean and the western Pacific.

The Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meeting in Doha through Thursday, was almost evenly split, with 64 countries voting in favour and 59 opposed, but the measure would have needed a two-thirds majority to pass.

Japan led the opposition to the measure, co-sponsored by the United States and the European Union.

Many north African countries with extensive cottage industries built up around the precious coral — which can sell for tens of thousands of dollar (euros) per kilo — joined in the “no” vote.

The United States argued that overexploitation was responsible for an approximately 85 percent drop is harvests over the last three decades, and that global oversight was needed to prevent the species for slipping past the threshold of viability.

Japan and its allies countered that the deep-water, reef-building organisms were not facing extinction, and said that proponents had not sufficiently taken into account the impact on coastal fishing communities.

The measure targeted seven species in the Coralliidae family, one growing in the Mediterranean and the others in the western Pacific, including Hawaii.

It would also have cover another 24 so-called “look-alike” species to prevent accidental harvesting.

Environmental and marine conservation groups slammed the decision.

“To say that it is highly disappointing would be an understatement,” said Ernie Cooper of the wildlife monitoring group TRAFFIC.

“The message of this COP is that it is going to be very difficult to achieve conservation for high-value marine species given the concerted effort to block any attempt to list these species on CITES.”

Last week, CITES rejected a total ban on fishing of Atlantic bluefin tuna from the Mediterranean and the eastern Atlantic.

Historically, the UN trade body has dealt more with charismatic fauna such as great apes, big cats and elephants, rather than commercially harvested species worth billions.

“The unregulated and virtually unmanaged collection and trade of these 31 species is driving them to extinction. Today’s decision sets a terrible precedent,” said David Allison of Washington-based Oceana.