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For Immediate Release, February 6, 2008

Contact: Miyoko Sakashita, (415) 436-9682 x 308 or (510) 845-6703 (cell)

Critical Habitat Proposed to Protect Florida’s Disappearing Corals
Habitat Designation Adds Protection for Corals Threatened by Global Warming

SAN FRANCISCO— Today the federal government proposed designating almost 5,000 square miles of reef area off the coasts of Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act for the threatened staghorn and elkhorn corals. The proposal, published in the Federal Register by the National Marine Fisheries Service, was required by a settlement agreement of a 2007 lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity.

The two coral species, which were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in May 2006 in response to a petition by the Center, have the dubious honor of being the first and (pending an overdue final listing decision on the polar bear) only species listed under the Endangered Species Act due to threats to their survival primarily caused by global warming. The federal government failed to designate critical habitat for the corals as required by the Endangered Species Act, prompting the Center’s August 2007 lawsuit.

“Critical habitat is one of the most important safety nets for wildlife listed under the Endangered Species Act,” said Miyoko Sakashita, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “For corals, critical habitat will add a layer of defense against threats to the marine habitat such as pollution, overfishing, increased temperatures, and ocean acidification.”

Once the most abundant and important reef-building corals in Florida and the Caribbean, staghorn and elkhorn corals have declined by upwards of 90 percent in many areas, primarily as a result of disease and “bleaching,” an often-fatal stress response to abnormally high water temperatures in which corals expel the symbiotic algae that give them color. The rising temperature of the ocean as a result of global warming is the single greatest threat to these two coral species as well as coral reefs more generally worldwide. Scientists have predicted that most of the world’s coral reefs will disappear by mid-century due to global warming and the related threat of ocean acidification under a business-as-usual emissions scenario.

Once an area is designated as critical habitat, the Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to ensure that any activities they authorize do not destroy or adversely modify that habitat. Federal authorizations resulting in substantial greenhouse gas emissions would be subject to this prohibition. While today’s critical habitat proposal properly identifies most important coral areas off Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands for increased legal protection, the rule bizarrely and illegally states that elevated water temperatures will not be analyzed as a factor impacting critical habitat.

“This proposal is symptomatic of the schizophrenic world federal agencies are operating in under Bush,” said Sakashita. “Agency scientists are properly identifying the habitat endangered coral species need to survive, yet at the same time the administration insists on inserting language into the proposal explicitly stating that the most important threat to that habitat, global warming, will be ignored. Protecting coral critical habitat without addressing rising ocean temperatures is like pretending you can protect polar bears without addressing melting sea ice. It’s irrational, not to mention illegal under the Endangered Species Act.”

Under the terms of the court settlement the critical habitat designation for the corals must be finalized by November 30, 2008. The National Marine Fisheries Service is accepting comments on the proposed designation for 90 days.

More information regarding the elkhorn and staghorn corals is available at: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/invertebrates/staghorn_coral/index.html.
Photos are also available for use with attribution to photographers: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/invertebrates/staghorn_coral/coral_images/.  

The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with more than 40,000 members dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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