The Center for Biological Diversity today gave formal notice to the federal government that it will sue the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to designate critical habitat for two imperiled coral species. In May 2006, the Fisheries Service listed elkhorn and staghorn corals as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. With that listing, federal law requires habitat protection.
Once the dominant reef-building corals in Florida and the Caribbean, elkhorn and staghorn corals have almost entirely disappeared. In the past three decades, these corals declined more than 90 percent. Between 1970 and 2000, about 80 percent of Caribbean corals died, and a severe bleaching event in 2005 killed nearly 20 percent of the remaining coral. Bleaching generally occurs when corals reach their thermal limits and expel the symbiotic algae that are vital for their survival.
Due to alarming declines, the Fisheries Service protected elkhorn and staghorn corals under the Endangered Species Act in response to a petition submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity. In listing the corals the Fisheries Service acknowledged that habitat destruction is threatening the corals' survival, and noted that documented increases in water temperatures are an additional threat to that habitat. The polar bear is now being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act, but last year these corals became the first species actually protected under the Act due to global warming.
Global warming is the principal threat to coral reefs. Bleaching events are becoming more frequent and severe as the ocean absorbs heat from the climate system. Warm waters also render corals more vulnerable to disease, and sea-level rise can drown suitable shallow habitat. Additionally, increased frequency and intensity of storms can abrade and damage corals. Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is absorbed by the ocean and causes seawater to become more acidic. If unabated, ocean acidification is likely to impair coral growth and dissolve coral structures. Other human activities that harm coral habitat include coastal development, boating, fishing, and snorkeling.
"Coral reefs are the most imperiled ecosystems in the world, and they will disappear within our lifetimes if we do not act immediately to stop global warming," said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The law imposes a clear duty on the government to protect coral habitat, and further delay could commit these corals to extinction."
The Endangered Species Act requires the Fisheries Service to designate critical habitat for threatened and endangered species because it provides an additional layer of protection beyond listing alone. Congress emphasized the importance of critical habitat recognizing that "the ultimate effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act will depend on the designation of critical habitat," and recent studies have shown that species with critical habitat are twice as likely to have improving population trends than species without it. According to Sakashita, critical habitat protection for corals means that if a government action will adversely affect coral habitat, including those activities that contribute to global warming, the government must take steps to avoid such impacts.
Even though the Fisheries Service proposed legislation yesterday affording greater protection to the nation's coral reefs, critical habitat designation remains important for elkhorn and staghorn corals because the proposed Coral Reef Ecosystem Conservation Amendment Act of 2007 is insufficient to fully protect imperiled corals from the impacts of pollution, climate change, and fishing.
The government has no longer than one year after listing a species to designate critical habitat. Now that year has come and gone, and corals remain without habitat protection. The Bush administration has opposed critical habitat designation for most species and has generally ignored its duties until faced with litigation.
While listing the elkhorn and staghorn corals as threatened under the Endangered Species Act was an important step towards their conservation and recovery, those protections remain incomplete without critical habitat designation. Critical habitat is likely to include areas in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. If the Fisheries Service does not correct its violation and designate critical habitat for elkhorn and staghorn corals, the Center for Biological Diversity will file suit to compel compliance with the law.