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Live clusters of color...

Coral are small invertebrates related to sea anemones. They live in shallow, salt-water seas, their soft bodies topped by a ring of stinging tentacles for catching food. Reefs form when groups of the small sea animals create living quarters. They secrete an internal, hard skeleton structure composed of calcium carbonate, which is absorbed from the surrounding water. When they die, their shells build upon old shells until a great reef takes shape.

Coral can come in many colors, ranging from vivid orange to deep salmon to palest pink and rare violet. Since the Victorian era, coral has been popular as jewelry, whether small natural pieces of branch coral or carved cameos. But coral and the reefs they form serve a more critical function.

Coral reef ecosystems are among the most productive and diverse ecosystems in the world, often considered the equivalent of terrestrial rainforests. Countless species co-exist because of the constant renewal of framework and structure created by reef-building organisms. Reef structures are erosion resistant and help protect the coastal shores from storms. The natural chemical and biological breakdown of reefs produces abundant sediments that in turn nourish beaches. In many areas, reefs are an important economic resource, creating habitat for commercially and recreationally important fish and related species, and for divers who in turn support local and regional tourist and recreation industries. Consequently many regions of the world enjoy significant economic benefit from coral reefs.

dying off in three decades

But coral reefs are also very fragile. Because coral and coral reefs are living things, they are easily killed. Throughout Florida and the Caribbean, elkhorn, staghorn and fused-staghorn coral were the dominant reef-building coral species for most of the past half-million years. Over just the last 30 years, however, theses species have suffered an 80-98 percent decline throughout significant portions of their range, reducing coral cover and opening space on reefs at an unprecedented pace. The ongoing pervasive mortality of these species seems to be a unique event—contrasting starkly with their past ability to persist through both the Pleistocene and Holocene mass-extinction periods.

Crucial factors in the decline of these species include disease, thermally induced bleaching, physical destruction from storms, predation, competition, and activities that degrade habitat and water quality. But the best available science indicates that each of these threats has been exacerbated and accelerated by a driving force: global climate change.

Key to an ecosystem

The losses to these species over the past three decades are of particular concern because they provide most of their native region's three-dimensional structure, which is critical to the reef ecosystem. These species are the only Caribbean corals with accretion rates that may be fast enough to keep up with rising sea levels. The Acropora genus is also highly sensitive to environmental stresses, making Acropora corals good biological indicators of the health of reef ecosystems and of the global environment. As such, their essential structural and ecological role is irreplaceable, and their loss threatens the entire reef ecosystem and the immeasurable number of humans and marine organisms that depend upon functioning reefs.

Among the Acropora genus, only elkhorn, staghorn and fused-staghorn exist in the Caribbean region. They occur in United States waters off the coasts of Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Navassa Island. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Office (NOAA Fisheries) has known for several years that these species are facing extinction, but has failed to act upon this knowledge and put protections in place for them. If their loss is not arrested and reversed, they could go extinct in the near future, resulting not only in the loss of irreplaceable forms of life but also billions of dollars in tourist, recreational, medicinal and subsistence income.

Center seeks protection

It’s not too late yet, though. Critical habitat designation and “listing” these species as endangered under the Endangered Species Act might save the corals. In March 2004, the Center filed a petition requiring NOAA Fisheries, the government agency charged with protecting coral reefs, to take action while there is still an opportunity for them to recover. Once listed as endangered species, these coral species would have a variety of protections put in place. Direct “take” of the corals would be prohibited, critical habitat areas would be protected, and recovery plans would be implemented. Perhaps most importantly, because global climate change is largely driven by greenhouse gas emissions, the listing of these corals would require greenhouse-gas emitting industries to consider the well-being and recovery of these corals before they are given permits to pollute.

The Caribbean Acropora species must be protected. Their value to the world is incalculable, as is the cost their potential eradication poses to the world.

Things You Can Do:

1) Join the Center.

2) Become a Biodiversity Activist.

graphic Andrew Rodman ©2002
March 14, 2007
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