SAVING ELKHORN CORALS
Relatives of the sea anemone and every bit as splashy, corals display hues ranging from brilliant orange and deep salmon to pale pink and subtle violet. Often referred to as “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs are perhaps the greatest, most vibrant expressions of ocean life. Yet due to global warming, already-delicate coral reefs throughout the Caribbean and along the coast of Florida are vanishing at unprecedented rates.
Thanks to a scientific petition the Center submitted, elkhorn and staghorn corals gained federal legal protection in 2006, becoming the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act because of vulnerability to global warming. In 2008, NOAA Fisheries (then known as the National Marine Fisheries Service) passed a rule prohibiting all activities that might harm the corals or their habitat. In 2012, the agency proposed to upgrade the coral's Endangered Species Act status from "threatened" to "endangered." And now, thanks to a lawsuit filed by the Center, elkhorn and staghorn corals also have almost 3,000 square miles of protected critical habitat.
Unfortunately, the Fisheries Service included a giant loophole in its critical habitat rule disregarding the threats of global warming and ocean acidification — so we're preparing to sue again. We've also sued to protect these delicate corals from the overfishing of fish that eat marine algae — fish whose activities sustain entire reef ecosystems — as well as to obtain a proposed recovery plan in 2013.
Protection under the Endangered Species Act opens the door to greater opportunities for coral reef conservation. It also requires greenhouse-gas-emitting industries to grapple with their impacts on vulnerable coral species. If we can keep the polluters at bay, these colorful critters can and will make a comeback.