Posted by: reefrescue | February 15, 2010

America’s coral reefs are a wreck

Feds petitioned to protect reefs

NEWS-PRESS.COM, Ft. Myers, Florida

by Kevin Lollar • klollar@news-press.com •

America’s coral reefs are a wreck, and a national conservation organization wants the federal government to do something about it.

Last week, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned NOAA’s Fisheries Service to add 82 stony coral species to the Endangered Species List.

Of the species, 74 are from the Indo-Pacific region, while eight are from the Caribbean region, including mountainous star coral, pillar coral and rough cactus coral.

“I’ve been in the Caribbean since the 1960s,” said John Ogden, director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography. “And I would say it’s virtual devastation of most of the reefs of the greater Caribbean, Florida, the Bahamas and Bermuda.”

This isn’t the Center for Biological Diversity’s first effort to get legal protection for corals.

As result of the center’s 2004 petition, staghorn and elkhorn corals are now listed as threatened on the Endangered Species List.

“Corals are really in crisis right now,” said Miyoko Sakashita, the center’s oceans director. “They were already undergoing major destruction from fishing practices and pollution. But now global warming and ocean acidification are major threats.”

Ocean acidification occurs when sea water absorbs carbon dioxide created by the burning of fossil fuels; as the carbon dioxide dissolves, carbonic acid forms, increasing the acidity of the water.

High acidity decreases corals’ ability to produce their skeletons and build reefs.

“Listing these corals is a wake up call that our reefs are endangered, and if we don’t take action, we’ll lose them,” Sakashita said. “It could also be a tool to regulate greenhouse gases: One of the most powerful tools of the Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to avoid impacts that could jeopardize endangered species, and any source of funding contributing to greenhouse emissions would have to look at the impact on corals.”

NOAA Fisheries Service’s first step is to gather all available data about the species proposed for the Endangered Species List, fisheries biologist Marta Nammack said.
One year from the date NOAA received the petition, the service must either deny the proposal or recommend some or all of the species be listed as threatened or endangered.

Next would be a 60-day public comment period, after which the service has one year to make a final decision.

An important part of the Endangered Species Act is a recovery plan to help protect a listed species and help its population come back.

The Endangered Species Act, however, would be a little trickier for coral species than terrestrial species, Ogden said.

“This is not like the snail darter or spotted owl,” he said. “The Endangered Species Act is crafted for species like those, which have discrete populations, and we know for sure that they’re disappearing, and we know what the causes are.

“The ocean is different. The problem is extremely widespread in the Caribbean. It’s not a matter of extinction. It’s a matter of disastrous population decline in most places, but not every place. And we have very complicated interactions with the big three: fishing and its impacts, land-based pollution and climate change.”

Still, adding these coral species to the Endangered Species Act might help their populations, Ogden said, but only if the federal government deals with the big three.

“This non-government organization is saying, ‘Look, there are no real laws that apply as affectively as the Endangered Species Act to this situation,’” Ogden said. “The Endangered Species Act may not really apply, but it’s the best possible thing we have right now to get attention to what is a drastic and continuing issue.”

Although listing these coral species might help them in U.S. waters, protecting them throughout their range, whether in the Caribbean or Indo-Pacific region, will require international cooperation, said Brian Keller, science coordinator for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

“We’ve been watching corals decline for the last 30 years, but effective management requires more than a United States effort,” he said. “If the United States can start some of these efforts to protect corals, perhaps that will help lead to larger cooperative efforts.”

 
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