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Environment: NOAA lists 20 coral species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act

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Widespread threats lead to “threatened” listing for 20 coral species under the Endangered Species Act. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Conservation and recovery plans will be crafted in partnership with coastal communities

Staff Report

FRISCO — Twenty types of coral in the Pacific and Caribbean will be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, federal officials announced this week, citing declines of up to 90 percent in some species.

The listing announcement marks a big change from the original 2013 proposal, which included 66 coral species for listing consideration. New scientific reports on climate change and coral reef distribution helped the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration narrow down the list. According to NOAA, 15 of the corals are in the Indo-Pacific and five in the Caribbean.

“Coral reefs are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth, providing habitat for many marine species. Protecting and conserving these biologically rich ecosystems is essential, and the Endangered Species Act gives us the tools to conserve and recover those corals most in need of protection,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “The final decision is a result of the most extensive rulemaking ever undertaken by NOAA. The amount of scientific information sought, obtained and analyzed was unprecedented.”

Some corals may be more resilient to warming waters than first thought immediately after a strong El Niño event led to a global wave of coral bleaching. Along with rising ocean temperatures, some coral reefs near shore are being damaged by runoff from agriculture, urban development and other sources. Other impacts include direct damage from fishing, as well as over-harvesting of certain fish that maintain reef health. Protecting corals from land-based and direct impacts could help make them more able to withstand long-term global warming.

NOAA officials said they’ll work with coastal jurisdictions to develop conservation strategies that mesh with local cultural and economic needs. Currently no prohibitions exist relating to the newly listed species.

Healthy coral reefs provide shoreline protection for coastal communities and habitat for a variety of species, including commercially important fish. These benefits are lost when corals are degraded.

NOAA will work with partners on mitigation measures and recovery plans for the newly listed corals. These will likely include approaches that have shown success elsewhere, such as watershed management, to address land-based sediment pollution in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Hawaii, and restoration efforts in the Southeast where NOAA and partners are transplanting corals grown in nurseries to help recover degraded reefs.

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