Twenty new species of coral are now listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on Wednesday.
NOAA said in the rule that it considered multiple threats to coral when deciding which species to designate, including corals’ vulnerability to ocean acidification and warming, pollution from agriculture and other sources, fishing, dredging, disease, invasive species and other potential impacts. The addition of the 20 threatened coral species brings the number of coral species listed under the Endangered Species Act to 22.
The “threatened” designation doesn’t result in any immediate restrictions on activities that may affect the health of the coral, like fishing and land use. Unlike an “endangered” designation, which is granted to species that are at higher, more immediate risk of extinction, the threatened designation does not automatically trigger any protections against take, meaning hunting, collecting or harassing.
NOAA stated in a release, however, that it would consult with other federal agencies to see whether any actions that they “execute, fund, or authorize” could affect the threatened corals, and it may also identify regulations that could help the threatened coral coral populations become healthier.
“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,” Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries said. “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.”
Originally, NOAA had proposed in November 2012 to list 66 coral species — 12 as endangered and 54 as threatened. NOAA said in a statement that it whittled that down to 20 species after it gathered new information on the species and took public comments on the species’ vulnerability into account. The 2012 proposal also suggested moving elkhorn coral, which scientists say is being killed off by disease that’s caused by bacteria in untreated human sewage in the Florida Keys, from the threatened list to the endangered list.
The IUCN, which keeps a “Red List” of species that are in danger of extinction, lists elkhorn coral as critically endangered, but NOAA chose to leave elkhorn coral and staghorn coral as threatened species.
The 2012 proposal was prompted by a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity for NOAA to list 83 species of corals as threatened or endangered. Under NOAA’s final decision, the “threatened” designation will cover five coral species in the Caribbean and 15 species in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Coral are crucial reef-builders, and coral reefs provide important environments for many different kinds of fish. They also provide excellent protection from storm surge, reducing wave energy by 97 percent on average, according to to a report published earlier this year in Nature Communications. Michael Beck, one of the authors of the report and senior scientist for the Nature Conservancy, told ThinkProgress in May that, despite major threats from ocean acidification and warming, coral reefs “can be resilient” and recover from stresses like bleaching.
But in order to recover from stresses, coral reefs must be managed well, Beck said. Good coral reef management might be easier that it sounds, however — according to a recent study, protecting parrotfish and urchins, which are grazers and eat algae that could otherwise smother coral, are key to the survival of coral reefs. The study, which looked at thousands of surveys of coral, seaweeds, and grazing fish and urchins around the world, found that some of the healthiest coral reefs are those that have made it a priority to protect parrotfish, by doing things like banning fish traps and spearfishing or banning the collection of parrotfish and sea urchins altogether.