NMFS Solicits Public Comment on Protective Regulations for Listed Coral Species

Today the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s (NOAA) National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) officially began soliciting public input as they consider developing a section 4(d) rule for the 20 species of coral recently listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). “Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Request for Information for the Issuance of Protective Regulations Under Section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act for the Conservation of Threatened Corals” appeared 13 January 2015 in the Federal Register and is an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking that could limit activity related to the listed species.


In late August, NMFS announced a final rule listing 20 species of coral as threatened under the ESA, and the final rule was officially published on 10 September. The primary threats to the listed species were identified by NMFS as ocean warming, disease, and ocean acidification. Other threats, including collection and trade, were identified as medium to low threats. Unlike the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), NMFS does not presumptively apply prohibitions outlined in ESA Section 9 to species listed as “threatened” under the ESA. As such, even though several aquarium coral species were listed as threatened in the final rule, trade and other commercial activity related to those species was not immediately affected.

In the case of species under NMFS jurisdiction that are listed as “threatened,” the Secretary of Commerce, under Section 4(d) of the ESA, is directed to “issue such regulations as she deems necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of the species.” The regulations issued by the Secretary of Commerce may include so-called Section 9 “take” prohibitions. In ESA-speak, “take” is defined as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to engage in any such conduct.”

4(d) Rulemaking

The issuance of so-called 4(d) rules could end most, if not all, commercial activity related to the listed species, making it unlawful for any person subject to U.S. jurisdiction to:

(A) Import any such species into, or export any such species from the United States; (B) take any such species within the United States or the territorial sea of the United States; (C) take any such species upon the high seas; (D) possess, sell, deliver, carry, transport, or ship, by any means whatsoever, any such species taken in violation of subparagraphs (B) and (C); (E) deliver, receive, carry, transport, or ship in interstate or foreign commerce, by any means whatsoever and in the course of a commercial activity, any such species; (F) sell or offer for sale in interstate or foreign commerce any such species; or (G) violate any regulation pertaining to such species or to any
threatened species of fish or wildlife listed pursuant to section 1533 of this title and promulgated by the Secretary pursuant to authority provided by this chapter.

According to NMFS, the decision to extend Section 9 prohibitions to threatened species is based on “the biological status of the species, the potential impacts of various activities on the species, and on factors such as the existence and efficacy of other conservation activities.”

Exemptions and Flexibility

While 4(d) rulemaking could end all commercial activity related to the species in question, there is also the opportunity for NMFS to issue “limited specified exemptions.” While NMFS is now considering whether protective regulations are necessary for the conservation of the 20 species, they also emphasize that they have “flexibility under section 4(d) to tailor protective regulations based on the contributions of other existing conservation measures.” Even if they apply certain “take” prohibitions, NMFS points out they can “provide exceptions for certain circumstances in which extending the take prohibitions is not necessary and advisable.”

In today’s publication, NMFS acknowledges that only some of the recently listed coral species occur in waters under U.S. jurisdiction but that others are commonly imported into the U.S. for the marine aquarium trade. “One of the section 9(a)(1) prohibitions that may be applied pursuant to section 4(d),” NMFS states, “is the prohibition on the take of species on the high seas. We are therefore requesting information for all 20 newly listed threatened species, wherever they may occur, to help inform our determination of which take prohibitions may be necessary and advisable for their conservation.” Prohibitions could also affect cultured corals in addition to those harvested in the wild.

Public Comment Solicited

Specifically, NMFS is requesting public comment and information from other agencies that will assist them in better understanding and analyzing impacts of various activities related to the listed species. NMFS is also looking to better understand the “existence and
efficacy of ongoing conservation activities” related to the corals in question. In addition to public comment regarding prohibitions, NMFS is requesting comment concerning “specific activities that should be excepted from any prohibitions that may be applied because they either provide a conservation benefit or do not detract from the conservation of these species.” They are also interested in learning about the economic costs and benefits likely to result from any protective regulations and prohibitions resulting from 4(d) rulemaking.

Those wishing to submit public comment have until 16 March 2015.

Comments, information, or data may be submitted as follows:

Electronic Submissions: Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal www.regulations.gov. Go to 


Click the ‘‘Comment Now’’ icon, complete the required fields, and enter or attach your comments.

Mail: To submit written comments regarding Indo-Pacific species, contact the Pacific Islands Region: Lance Smith, Protected Resources Division, National Marine Fisheries Service, Pacific Islands Regional Office, NOAA Inouye Regional Center, 1845 Wasp Blvd., Building 176, Honolulu, HI 96818. To submit written comments regarding the Caribbean species, contact the Southeast Region: Stephania Bolden, Protected Resources Division, National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Regional Office, 263 13th Avenue  South, Saint Petersburg, FL 33701. 

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 Endangered Species Act (ESA), Global Climate Change, Indo-Pacific, Ornamental Fisheries and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to NMFS Solicits Public Comment on Protective Regulations for Listed Coral Species

  1. Steve Lowes says:

    Using this public input process it seems like responsible and contientious aquarists have an opportunity to voice the positive aspects of keeping living corals in reef aquariums. I’m sure authorities have heard them before but may be not from the hobbyist community directly (i.e. the primary end-user in the marine aquarium trade). There are tens of 1,000’s of us in the USA and hopefully the message can come across that:

    1. We have become tremendously successful maintaining, growing and culturing 100’s species of reef building corals in aquaria including species on the ESA Listing.
    2. We present a strong economic incentive versus low environmental impact to the collection/harvest of small coral colonies.
    3. We are strong supporters of native mariculture/aquaculture operations with potential for much more around say fair-trade initiatives.
    4. We bring tremendous educational potential of coral reefs (and the threats and issues they face) into the homes, schools and businesses of America.
    5. We support 1,000’s jobs and careers (in USA alone) of those working in the marine ornamental trade and aquarium product related industries.
    6. Our collective knowledge and experience of successfully growing culturing and most recently breeding the reef building corals has been leveraged by prestigious research groups to further understand the needs of the species in the wild.
    7. There is already a wildly popular and successful “week-end” trade/swap among aquarium hobbyists in coral propagations of species on the ESA Listing that have never seen the ocean since they have been cultured in aquaria for over a decade. This happens all over America every week.
    8. add others here …..

    Seems appropriate that we should use our collective voice regarding the positive aspects of our beloved hobby in this public comment period. Of course this should only add to the industry input with hard numbers and facts to support 4(d) ruling language that does not stop our ability to keep corals that are common and successful in our aquaria.

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