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Staghorn coral
Elkhorn coral

NBC Washington, December 1, 2008

Federal Protection of Coral Habitat Draws Lawsuit Threat
Environment News Service

SAINT PETERSBURG, Florida - NOAA's Fisheries Service is increasing its protection of threatened elkhorn and staghorn corals in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands through a new rule to prohibit activities that result in death or harm to either species.

The new regulations took effect on November 21 and five days later critical habitat for the two corals was designated. But the biodiversity advocacy group whose successful lawsuit is responsible for these protections is threatening to sue the federal government again, calling the critical habitat designation inadequate and illegal.

"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. This rule will strengthen our efforts to recover these corals by allowing us to address the human-induced threats affecting their status."

The rule will prohibit the import, export, take, and all commercial activities involving elkhorn and staghorn corals, including collection or any activities that result in the corals' mortality or injury, anchoring, grounding a vessel, or dragging any other gear on these corals; damaging their habitat; or discharging any pollutant or contaminant that harms them.

In a related move, the federal agency has designated almost 3,000 square miles of reef area off the coasts of Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands as critical habitat for the threatened corals under the Endangered Species Act.

The new critical habitat rule, published in Wednesday's Federal Register, was required by a court-approved settlement of a 2007 lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity.

It requires federal agencies to determine whether their activities will destroy or adversely modify areas designated as critical habitat for threatened corals.

But these steps are not enough to protect the two coral species under the Endangered Species Act, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

The nonprofit advocacy group has sent the Bush administration official notice of its intent file a lawsuit for excluding global warming and ocean acidification threats from the new rule protecting habitat for elkhorn and staghorn corals.

"The critical habitat rule exposes the Bush agenda to ignore global warming, while rising temperatures are driving corals extinct," said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity's San Francisco office.

"The rule shows the double standard of the Bush administration," said Sakashita. "On one hand, the law required the federal government to identify areas to protect for the threatened corals. On the other hand, the administration skirted the real threats to coral habitat, global warming and ocean acidification, by inserting language into the rule that carves out an exception for those threats. It is not only irrational, but it is illegal under the Endangered Species Act."

Elkhorn coral and staghorn coral, which were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2006, were the first species protected under the Endangered Species Act due to threats to their survival primarily caused by global warming.

Once the most abundant and important reef-building corals in Florida and the Caribbean, staghorn and elkhorn corals have declined by more than 90 percent in many areas. Sakashita says their decline is a result of disease and "bleaching," a stress response to abnormally high water temperatures in which corals expel the symbiotic algae that give them color.

A related threat, ocean acidification, caused by the ocean's absorption of carbon dioxide, impairs the ability of corals to build their protective skeletons.

Scientists have predicted that most of the world's coral reefs will disappear by midcentury due to global warming and ocean acidification if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced.

"Critical habitat protection can be an important factor leading to the recovery of our coral reefs, because changes to the ocean habitat are some of the primary threats to the corals," Sakashita said. "This rule, however, misses the mark by ignoring the simple fact that carbon dioxide pollution is degrading coral habitat and killing coral reefs.

© 2008 NBC Universal, Inc.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton