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Find out more from the Center for Biological Diversity:
Staghorn coral
Elkhorn coral

E & E News, October 28, 2008

NOAA expands protection for two coral species
By Allison Winter, E & E News PM reporter

The Bush administration announced additional protections today for two imperiled Atlantic coral species.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it would prohibit all commercial activities involving elkhorn and staghorn
corals, including any actions that could damage their habitat. NOAA listed the species as "threatened" last year, partly because of threats from rising sea temperatures.

The special rule gives additional protection to the corals that they would not have otherwise received under the "threatened" category, which is less stringent than an "endangered" listing under the Endangered Species Act.

"What they've done is significant," said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the original
petition to protect the corals. "Here they have decided that the elkhorn and staghorn are in such bad shape that they warrant full protections of the Endangered Species Act."

The two corals are the main reef-building species off the southeast Florida coast and throughout the Caribbean Sea. NOAA has identified disease, rising sea surface temperatures and damage from hurricanes as the chief threats to the corals.

"These corals were once the major reef builders in Florida and the Caribbean, but now more than 90 percent of their populations are lost," said Roy Crabtree, NOAA's Fisheries Service's Southeast regional administrator. "That not only threatens their survival -- it affects the entire ecosystem."

The rules, which will take effect Nov. 21, prohibit anyone from importing, exporting or directly taking the corals. Boats must avoid
anchoring or grounding their vessels on corals or dragging fishing gear on them. The regulations also prohibit damage to coral habitat and any discharge of pollutants or contaminants that harms the species.

Sakashita said the regulations should force the government to think twice about nutrient runoff, beach "renourishment" and development in the Caribbean and Florida. Renourishment projects -- placing extra sand on beaches to offset erosion -- can cloud nearshore waters with excessive sediment, blocking sunlight that corals need to thrive.

"They are not going to stop those activities, but they are going to have to ensure they are done in a way that doesn't kill corals or goes
through the proper permitting process," Sakashita said.

NOAA is also in the process of finalizing critical habitat for the corals. The decision on habitat protection is required by the end of
November under a court settlement.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton