Acropora globiceps coral, which is found in the Indo-Pacific region, is among the corals now listed for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Credit: NOAA

Twenty coral species have been listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced on 27 August. This is NOAA’s largest ESA rule making. The coral species include 15 found in the Indo-Pacific region and 5 that are located in the Caribbean. They join two other Caribbean coral species that NOAA listed as threatened in 2006.

The decision by NOAA to list the coral species as threatened responds to a 2009 petition by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which originally sought protection for 83 corals in U.S. waters. NOAA’s initial proposed ruling in November 2012 had recommended listing 66 coral species as either threatened or endangered. The agency noted that those preliminary determinations were changed because of new information it received during the ESA ­rule-​­making process.

During that process, NOAA identified threats to coral ecosystems, including impacts related to climate change, such as rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and disease; the ecological impacts of fishing; and land use practices that can disturb coral communities.

“The determination today is only with respect to the listing. At the moment, there is no additional rule that would limit the take of these [newly announced] threatened species,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries, at a news briefing to announce the listings. Noting the importance of coral reefs for resource conservation and a number of economic benefits, Sobeck said the agency would use the tools provided by the ESA to benefit coral reefs and “to try to allow responsible actions that might affect listed species to continue to go forward.”

Under ESA’s Section 7, NOAA “will make sure that no federal action will jeopardize a protected species and that we will be working with our federal partners to make sure that they minimize and mitigate for any take,” Sobeck added. “There is an opportunity, there is authority, under Section 7(a)(1) of the Endangered Species Act, for federal agencies to do things that are affirmatively beneficial to protected species. We are going to be taking advantage of those and other tools to both avoid harm and damage to protected species but also to benefit, restore, protect, and buffer [them] where we can.”

Sobeck said the agency will work with states, territories, partners, and individuals “on this matter in the future, as we try to work through exactly what the consequences will be of today’s listing.”

A Forward-Looking Determination

David Bernhart, assistant regional administrator with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, said that the listing under a threatened classification “is something of a ­forward-​­looking determination: that we are anticipating that as these threats worsen, these species in the future could become in danger of extinction. We don’t think that they are there yet, and that is one of the reasons why this threatened classification does not immediately have any of these takes prohibitions coming into place. That allows us to work later on some tailored solutions that might head off the possibility that these species might become endangered.”

Mitigation and recovery plans could include measures such as watershed management to address sediment pollution and restoration efforts, according to NOAA.

“A Big Step Forward”

The decision to list the corals as threatened is “a big step forward for corals,” said CBD oceans director and senior attorney Miyoko Sakashita. “The world’s coral reefs are in crisis from global warming and acidifying oceans, and it’s great news that 20 coral species will get the safety net of the Endangered Species Act to help them survive these threats. It’s a bittersweet victory to declare these animals endangered. This is a wake-up call that our amazing coral reefs are dying and need federal protection, but there’s hope for saving corals and many other ocean animals if we make rapid cuts in greenhouse gas pollution to stop global warming and ocean acidification,” Sakashita said.

For more information, see http://www​.­fisheries​.noaa​.gov/​­stories/​2014/​08/​­corals​_­listing​.html.

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.