NOAA Lists 20 Corals as Threatened Under Endangered Species Act

“The Endangered Species Act gives us the tools to conserve and recover those corals most in need of protection,” says Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries (Credit: NOAA)

Yesterday the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) delivered a final rule listing seven species of corals indigenous to Caribbean waters and 13 species of corals from the Indo-Pacific under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The listings were initially petitioned by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2009. A 2012 NMFS draft rule proposed listing 66 of the original 83 species, but the final rule, signed on 26 August by NMFS Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, causes just 20 new species to be listed. In addition to the 20 newly listed species, two Caribbean coral species were listed for ESA protection in 2006, bringing the total number of corals protected today to 22.

“Coral reefs are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth, providing habitat for many marine species. Protecting and conserving these biologically rich ecosystems is essential, and the Endangered Species Act gives us the tools to conserve and recover those corals most in need of protection,” commented Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “The final decision is a result of the most extensive rulemaking ever undertaken by NOAA. The amount of scientific information sought, obtained and analyzed was unprecedented.”

Because the newly listed species are being listed as “threatened” and not “endangered” under the ESA, there will be no additional prohibitions placed on conduct related to coral or coral reefs at this time as a result of the listing. This includes the direct harvest of coral for the aquarium, curio and jewelry trades, as well as the damage or destruction of coral secondary to various fishing techniques, construction projects and dredging operations. ESA prohibitions against “take” are not automatically applied to species listed as threatened, as they are for species listed as endangered.

The final rule is significantly different than the November 2012 draft rule. The draft rule, if it had remained unchanged, would have listed more than three times the number of corals. According to NOAA, the changes to the draft rule were the result of new information and extensive public comment. “We want to thank our stakeholders and partners for their strong participation at each step of this process,” said Sobeck, “and we look forward to working with the states, territories, commonwealths, local governments and all our stakeholders and partners to conserve these coral species and ensure they remain for future generations to enjoy.”

While there are no immediate prohibitions as a result of the listings, NOAA has stated they will “consult with federal agencies on actions that they execute, fund, or authorize that ‘may affect’ listed corals to ensure the action does not jeopardize the continued existence of  these corals.” Further, NOAA has announced that at some point in the future, they “may also identify specific regulations for the conservation of these threatened species.” These specific regulations may include further regulation or prohibition of direct or incidental harvest of the listed species.

NOAA says it will continue to work with stakeholders to help them understand how the listings may or may not affect them. “The tools available under the Endangered Species Act,” according to NOAA, “are sufficiently flexible so that they can be used [in] partnership with coastal jurisdictions, in a manner that will allow activity to move forward in a way that does not jeopardize listed coral.”

Euphyllia paradivisa, a popular aquarium coral commonly called frogspawn, is now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Euphyllia paradivisa, a popular aquarium coral commonly called frogspawn, is now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Several of the newly listed species are corals commonly traded in the marine aquarium trade, a trade about which the federal agency has expressed concerns. In NOAA’s 1104-page final rule document, the authors state:

As it currently stands, the amount of unreported, illegal, and unregulated collection, combined with the large amount of biomass loss along the supply chain raises serious questions as to the sustainability of the ornamental trade. Overall, collection and trade of coral reef wildlife is considered to contribute to some individual species’ extinction risk.

Nonetheless, while the authors say they consider the collection and trade of corals to be “a threat to coral reefs, as well as particular individual coral species,” they determined the “extinction risk as a result of collection and trade activities” was low.

NOAA is also currently considering listing the Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni), one of the more popular marine aquarium fishes, under the ESA

As part of the rulemaking process, NOAA says it identified the most serious threats to coral reef ecosystems as: 1) impacts related to climate change such as rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and disease, 2) ecological effects of fishing, and 3) poor land-use practices.

In its press release issued yesterday, CBD said “The federal government announced today that 20 species of coral are now protected as ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act because global warming, disease and ocean acidification are driving them toward extinction.” A spokesperson for CBD went on to say:

It’s a bittersweet victory to declare these animals endangered. This is a wake-up call that our amazing coral reefs are dying and need federal protection, but there’s hope for saving corals and many other ocean animals if we make rapid cuts in greenhouse gas pollution to stop global warming and ocean acidification.

A list of the newly listed species of coral can be found in this NOAA Fisheries Fact Sheet.


About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
This entry was posted in Caribbean, Endangered Species Act (ESA), Indo-Pacific, Ornamental Fisheries and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to NOAA Lists 20 Corals as Threatened Under Endangered Species Act

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