The Beacon

Threatened Corals Inch Closer to Protection

Coral reef at Palmyra Atoll. Photo courtesy Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

No, it’s not the annual full moon spawning event, but corals in the Pacific and Caribbean have something just as exciting to wave their tentacles at: possible protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

After many years facing changing ocean temperatures, acidification, and increased disease, corals have significantly declined in overall health and abundance. Scientists and conservationists have long studied and understood the plight of corals, but recently their efforts have prompted renewed action.

Three years after scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received petitions from the Center for Biological Diversity to list 83 species of coral under the protection of the ESA, NOAA has responded with a proposal to protect 66 coral species through the ESA.

Protecting coral reefs which provide homes to countless colorful reef fish, ambling sea turtles, sharks, and an endless host of other vital marine creatures, is paramount to our own enjoyment and success as fellow inhabitants of this finite blue planet. Corals are estimated to provide the U.S. economy with an annual net benefit of over one billion dollars from tourism, recreation, and commercial and recreational fisheries. They provide shore breaks from storms, new pharmaceuticals to treat diseases, and act as biological reserves due to the unparalleled level of genetic diversity contained within the ecosystems they support.

NOAA’s listing of 19 significant threats to corals consists of both global and local stressors. Worldwide, reef health is threatened by coral bleaching events, where coral polyps lose the algae living inside their tissues due to environmental stress. Corals are also susceptible to overfishing of algae-eating reef fish which keep the reef clean, and pollution from poor land use practices. These combined stresses over many years have left multiple coral species in dire need of relief.  

Inclusion of these 66 species under the ESA would allow protections of the critical habitat needed for their survival and ensure that a recovery plan for these species is put into effect. The goal of the ESA is to recover listed species so they no longer need the protections of the Act and to create a legal safety net to avoid extinction. Although the process of recovery can take 50 years or more, the ESA has made a difference for many vulnerable species.

Some of the better known and highly endangered and threatened critters currently on the list include tigers, western gorillas, giant pandas, manatees, 12 species of whales, including humpback, fin, and blue whales, and 6 sea turtles, including the green, hawksbill, and loggerhead. Oceana enthusiastically supports the recently proposed listings and we look forward to additional actions that promote the recovery and preservation of these valuable coral species.       

Listed Species include:

  • Seven species in the Pacific would be listed as endangered and 52 as threatened.
  • Five species in the Caribbean would be listed as endangered and two as threatened.
  • In addition, NOAA is proposing that two Caribbean species—elkhorn and staghorn corals—already listed under the ESA be reclassified from threatened to endangered.

Learn more about corals, the threats they face and how Oceana is working to protect them.

Andrew Walsh is an Oceana Fisheries Intern

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