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More corals could get endangered species protection

Mountainous Star Coral growing near the U.S. Virgin Islands. PHOTO BY CAROLINE ROGERS/USGS.

Feds agree to make listing decisions on 82 species by April 2012

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Along with elkhorn and staghorn coral, numerous other species could get more protection under the Endangered Species Act as soon as next year pursuant to a settlement reached this week in a federal court.

Under the agreement, federal biologists will determine by April 15, 2012 whether Endangered Species Act protections are needed for 82 species of coral. All were part of a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity that asked the federal government to list the corals as threatened or endangered.

If listed, resource managers could take steps to protect the corals from activities like harmful fishing techniques, dumping, dredging and offshore oil drilling.

The corals, which live in U.S. waters ranging from Florida and Hawaii to American territories in the Caribbean and Pacific, have all declined by more than 30 percent in the past 30 years. Coral reefs around the world are facing extinction due to overfishing, pollution and the overarching threats of global warming and ocean acidification.

“Unless we protect them right now, coral reefs will be lost within decades, and our grandchildren will never see these colorful underwater forests teeming with life,” said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the Center’s oceans program. “The settlement is a victory for corals because it will speed efforts to reduce threats and protect coral habitat.”

Scientists warn that by mid-century, coral reefs are likely to be the first worldwide ecosystem to collapse due to carbon dioxide pollution, which causes both global warming and ocean acidification. Warm water temperatures in 2010 marked the second-most deadly year on record for corals due to bleaching — a process by which they expel the colorful algae needed for their survival. Many corals die or succumb to disease after bleaching.

An additional threat to coral reefs is ocean acidification, caused by the ocean’s absorption of CO2. Ocean acidification has already impaired the ability of some corals to grow and will soon begin to erode certain reefs.

“Today’s agreement is an important step toward legal protections for some of the most vulnerable coral reefs,” said Sakashita. “Protecting corals as endangered species will promote their conservation, but we also need decisive action to reduce global warming and ocean acidification to ensure the recovery of magnificent reefs.”

In 2006, elkhorn and staghorn corals, which occur in Florida and the Caribbean, became the first, and to date the only, corals protected under the Endangered Species Act. But many other corals are also at high risk of disappearing.

Protection under the Endangered Species Act would open the door to greater opportunities for coral reef conservation, as activities ranging from fishing, dumping and dredging to offshore oil development — all of which hurt corals — would be subject to stricter regulation. The Act would require federal agencies to ensure that their actions do not harm corals, which could result in agencies that are required to approve projects with significant greenhouse gas emissions to consider and minimize those projects’ impacts on vulnerable corals.

Among the corals in today’s agreement are:

Mountainous star coral (Montastraea faveolata)
Once considered the dominant reef building coral of the Atlantic, more than half of these corals have disappeared in just three decades. This Caribbean coral is susceptible to bleaching, ocean acidification, pollution, and disease. Already, the decline and death of this coral is outpacing its ability to grow and build new colonies.

Blue rice coral (Montipora flabellata)
Only found in Hawaii, blue rice coral is uncommon and thrives in shallow reefs pounded by waves. Although this coral is usually flat and sheetlike, on one reef in Molokai it grows branches with an opening at the tip that provides a home to small shrimp. Blue rice coral is vulnerable to bleaching, habitat degradation, and disease.

Hawaiian reef coral (Montipora dilatata)
Hawaiian reef coral remains in fewer than five locations. It has the unfortunate trait of being among the first corals to bleach during increased water temperatures, and the slowest to recover. It has experienced significant climate-related population fluctuations over the last 20 years, and its small distribution makes it extremely vulnerable to extinction. Hawaiian reef coral has been considered a species of concern by the National Marine Fisheries Service since 2004.

Flowerpot coral (Alveopora allingi)
As its common name suggests, flowerpot coral resembles a bouquet of flowers. Overexploited by the aquarium trade and rapidly losing habitat, this coral is found in American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, and other areas of the Pacific. Flowerpot coral has the highest bleaching response of any coral genus, making it extremely vulnerable to global warming.

Acropora corals
Acropora corals are the most abundant corals on the majority of the reefs in the Indo-Pacific. However, these corals are extremely sensitive to bleaching and disease, and they’re slow to recover. Our petition seeks to protect several Acropora corals found in Hawaii and the greater Pacific. Two Acropora species in the Caribbean — elkhorn and staghorn corals — are already protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act as a result of a petition filed by the Center.

For more information about the Center’s coral conservation campaign, visit: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/coral_conservation/index.html.

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