US agency to review threats for 82 coral species
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- U.S. officials said Wednesday they have begun a review to determine if dozens of coral species off Florida, Hawaii and island territories of the Caribbean and Pacific should be listed as "threatened" or "endangered."
Currently, only reef-building staghorn and elkhorn corals are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, the first corals ever to receive such protection based on dramatic declines.
In the federal register Wednesday, the National Marine Fisheries Service said an Oct. 20 petition filed by a U.S. conservation group "presents substantial scientific or commercial information" indicating protection may be warranted for 82 additional species.
Among the list of 82 to be considered for protection is the mountainous star coral, once considered the dominant reef-building coral in the Atlantic. The majority of coral species included in the review belong to either the wider Caribbean or Indo-Pacific regions.
The Arizona-based conservation group, the Center for Biological Diversity, sought to include in the review one additional species, the ivory tree coral, a branching coral found in the Caribbean whose limbs provide shelter for numerous reef fish. Officials said there was insufficient data and excluded it from the study.
Protection under the Endangered Species Act would allow more coral reef conservation, as activities ranging from fishing, dumping, dredging and offshore oil development would be subject to stricter regulatory scrutiny.
Miyoko Sakashita, a lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity, said dozens of corals face a growing threat of extinction from rising ocean temperatures and more acidic water. He said protection could provide a safety net for the fragile organisms.
"The status review is an important step forward in protecting coral reefs, which scientists have warned may be the first worldwide ecosystem to collapse due to global warming," she said.
The conservation group announced last month it would sue the government to force a decision on whether to protect the coral species.
Marta Nammack, a biologist who works in the endangered species division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the NOAA's fisheries service agency will decide if endangered or threatened status is warranted for the corals by the end of the year. She said biological review teams are to complete their reviews by Oct. 20.
Reef-building coral is a fragile organism, a tiny polyp-like animal that builds a calcium-carbonate shell around itself and survives in a symbiotic relationship with types of algae - each providing sustenance to the other. Even a 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degree Fahrenheit) rise in normal maximum sea temperatures can disrupt that relationship.
Unusually warm waters in recent years have caused the animals that make up coral to expel the colorful algae they live with, creating a bleached color. If the problem persists, the coral itself dies - killing the environment where many fish and other marine organisms live.
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