Posted by: reefrescue | October 2, 2009

Staghorn Coral News Update

Palm Beach Daily News

Diver Gasque’s staghorn coral discovery revives habitat protection campaign

Daily News Staff Writer

Thursday, October 01, 2009

An environmental group says it has discovered a large patch of staghorn coral off the town’s coast — a find it says justifies federal habitat protection for the endangered species in local waters.

Palm Beach County Reef Rescue says its dive team is mapping the staghorn coral site about a mile off the coast of The Mar-a-Lago and Bath & Tennis clubs.

Town resident Connie Gasque, a local diver since 1982 and a Reef Rescue member, said Thursday there are 72 colonies of staghorn coral at the site. Gasque said she found staghorn coral there in December, but didn’t realize the extent of it until diving the area on Saturday.

The patch is about 80 feet long and 30 feet wide, in waters 45 feet to 70 feet deep, she said. The largest example is 30 inches in diameter and 18 inches tall.

“I was flabbergasted,” Gasque said. “This is the largest known stand of staghorn coral in Palm Beach County. It’s very, very healthy. If it continues to grow, without a hurricane, it will become a thicket.”

Even before Saturday’s discovery, Reef Rescue had asked the National Marine Fisheries Service to extend a coral protection zone along the town’s shoreline.

The town has opposed the extension, which could interfere with efforts to nourish its eroded beaches.

In November, the fisheries service designated as critical habitat for elkhorn and staghorn coral a swath of ocean floor from the Florida Keys to Boynton Beach Inlet.

The two reef-building species have suffered drastic declines in the last 25 years, and have been protected since 2006 by the federal Endangered Species Act.

Reef Rescue says there is enough staghorn coral to warrant extending the protection zone 15 miles north to the Palm Beach Inlet.

The town told the fisheries service on Aug. 26 that the coral is infrequent north of the Boynton Inlet and doesn’t meet Endangered Species Act guidelines for critical habitat.

A critical habitat designation would lengthen environmental reviews for beach-fill projects without adding substantial protection for the coral, said Penny Cutt, regional manager of environmental permitting for Coastal Systems International, a town consultant.

Ed Tichenor, Reef Rescue’s director, said Saturday’s discovery is a game-changer because it proves the coral can thrive in Palm Beach County waters.

The critical habit designation wouldn’t interfere with beach nourishments, he said. Staghorn coral is already protected by environmental permits issued by state and federal agencies whenever a beach nourishment occurs, he said.

“The town’s opposition is a kneejerk reaction to oppose anything they perceive as an obstacle to beach nourishments,” Tichenor said.

The fisheries service is reviewing the group’s petition and will announce its intention on Jan. 6, said Jennifer Moore, a natural resource specialist with the agency’s regional office in St. Petersburg.

Moore said Thursday the agency doesn’t always conduct field inspections because it doesn’t have enough staff to do that.

“Reef Rescue has submitted its data, and we’ll take that into consideration,” she said.

Brazil said the town has asked Reef Rescue for the coordinates so it can send its own dive team to inspect the site.

Town Manager Peter Elwell said the town supported the fisheries service’s original decision, setting the northern limit of the coral protection zone at Boynton Inlet, because it was grounded in science.

“We look forward to working with all of the parties to assist (the fisheries service) in determining whether this new information is sufficient to warrant a review of its prior determination,” he said.

Dan Bates, director of Environmental Resources Management for Palm Beach County, said the county does not oppose extension of the critical habitat zone to Palm Beach Inlet, and doesn’t believe the zone would interfere with beach nourishments.

There are already protections in place for nearshore marine habitat, sawfish and nesting sea turtles, he noted.

“Adding one more to the mix is not that big of a deal,” Bates said. “I think it’s great that the coral is there.”


Other news links:

NBC News video:

Palm Beach Post:  We found rare Staghorn coral where Palm Beach officials told feds it wouldn’t be



Take Action to help protect this coral. Tell the Town of Palm Beach to withdraw their objection to federal habitat protection.


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