Bleached, Damaged U.S. Corals First to Qualify as Threatened

WASHINGTON, DC, March 4, 2005 (ENS) - The first listing of any coral species under the federal Endangered Species Act was proposed today for staghorn and elkhorn corals. Native to Florida and the Caribbean, these species are in decline due to damage from human activities and hurricanes, disease and bleaching brought on by climate change.

Today, NOAA Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere Timothy Keeney announced the agency's proposal to list the corals as threatened during the 13th biannual meeting of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force held in Washington. Keeney is co-chair of the task force.

The listing is proposed in response to a March 4, 2004 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, that requested designation of three coral species as threatened or endangered - staghorn coral, elkhorn coral, and fused-staghorn coral, which is a hybrid of the elkhorn and staghorn corals.

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Staghorn coral and seagrass in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (Photo courtesy NOAA)
NOAA Fisheries Service conducted a status review and determined that staghorn and elkhorn corals warrant listing as threatened. The fused-staghorn coral is naturally rare because it is a hybrid that cannot interbreed, and it does not qualify as a species under the act, scientists concluded.

“This is a great day for science, conservation, and the great state of Florida,” said Brent Plater of the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the request to protect the corals. “Now we can begin the fun part: working hard to bring these corals back from the brink of extinction with the Endangered Species Act, the world’s most effective safety net for fish and wildlife.”

Despite ongoing domestic and international conservation efforts, staghorn and elkhorn coral continue to decline and face many threats that are not being adequately mitigated, said NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher.

"These formerly abundant corals have remained at low levels without noticeable recovery, and in cases where we have targeted monitoring data, they continue to decline," he said.

Although they survived two periods of mass extinctions, over the past 30 years these species have suffered an 80 to 98 percent decline depending on location, the Center for Biological Diversity says, reducing coral cover and opening space on reefs at an unprecedented pace.

"Our scientists are currently conducting research to understand causes of disease and temperature-induced bleaching to these ecologically important coral reefs," said Dr. Bill Hogarth, director of NOAA Fisheries Service.

"They work to restore reefs that are damaged from hurricanes and humans, but this is not sufficient to restore the staghorn and elkhorn corals to healthy levels," he said.

NOAA Fisheries Service will publish a proposed rule to list the two species, and public comments will be solicited and reviewed. Hogarth said NOAA will coordinate with state and territorial managers throughout the process.

Once listed, direct taking of the corals will be prohibited, critical habitat areas will be protected, and recovery plans will be implemented.

Plater said that the role of climate change in coral bleaching calls for preventive measures. "The listing of these corals will require greenhouse gas emitting industries to consider the well being and recovery of these corals before they are given permits to pollute," he said.

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The reef surrounding Mona Island, Puerto Rico contains old growth stands of Elkhorn coral, Acropora palmatta. Here an Elkhorn coral lies damaged by a ship grounding and, later, by the removal of the ship from the reef. Summer 1997. (Photo by Erik Zobrist courtesy NOAA)
“The destruction and loss of these coral species and therefore the loss of a major portion of the Florida-reef tract ecosystem will result in the loss of billions of dollars to our economy, the loss of an unknown number of medicines, and decimate local biodiversity. It’s just common sense to consider these impacts before it is too late,” the conservationist said.

In the Western Atlantic, these branching corals are found in shallow water on reefs throughout the Bahamas, Florida and the Caribbean.

These delicate corals are particularly sensitive to sediment, as they are among the least effective of the reef-building corals at trapping and removing sediment from their surface. They grow best in clear water free from excess nutrients, runoff or algal blooms.

Prolonged exposure to high water temperatures and other stresses may lead to bleaching, which is the loss of symbiotic algae from the coral. These algae give corals their color, provide food to the coral, and remove some of the corals' waste products. If these stresses continue, the corals will die.

NOAA's Coral Program monitors abundance and disease outbreaks of corals, funds research on population genetics and restoration techniques, conducts on-the-ground conservation activities, and participates actively with its partners on the United States Coral Reef Task Force. The Task Force oversees the implementation of the 1998 Executive Order 13089 on Coral Reef Protection.