WASHINGTON— The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced two proposed rules today to designate more than 6,000 square miles of critical habitat protections for 12 threatened coral species off Florida, in the Caribbean and in the Pacific Ocean. The rules were prompted by a legal settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued to force the urgent, long-overdue protections.
“These are vital habitat protections that recognize the need to address climate change, which is killing off our precious corals. Coral reefs are the cornerstones of healthy oceans, and we have to enforce these protections quickly,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director at the Center. “Ocean warming and acidification are dire threats to corals and other ocean life. Endangered species with critical habitat are twice as likely to be in recovery as those without it. Now we need to work on drastically reducing our carbon emissions.”
The Caribbean critical habitat rule will protect 5,900 square miles of habitat off of Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Flower Garden Banks in the Gulf of Mexico. Notably, it affirms the threats climate change and ocean acidification pose to coral: “Ocean warming is one of the most significant threat to the five ESA-listed Caribbean corals.”
Corals face widespread threats, including habitat destruction, pollution, overharvest, disease and climate change. Warming ocean temperatures and ocean acidification due to greenhouse gas pollution threaten the continued survival of coral reefs. An estimated 50% of coral reefs worldwide have already been lost to climate change, and about one-third of reef-building coral species are at risk of extinction.
The Caribbean corals are Dendrogyra cylindrus (pillar coral), Orbicella annularis (lobed star coral), Orbicella faveolata (mountainous star coral), Orbicella franksi (boulder star coral) and Mycetophyllia ferox (rough cactus coral). The Pacific corals are Acropora globiceps, Acropora jacquelineae, Acropora retusa, Acropora speciosa, Euphyllia paradivisa, Isopora crateriformis and Seriatopora aculeate.
The Pacific rule would protect 230 square mile of marine habitat around American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Pacific Remote Islands. Critical habitat designation doesn’t close off the areas for people to swim, fish and recreate, but it does require consultation for federal government activities. Activities that will require additional management include: construction, dredging, beach nourishment, water pollution, marine protected areas, fisheries, aquaculture, military activities.
In 2014 the National Marine Fisheries Service listed 20 species of corals as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, 12 of which occur within U.S. waters. The Endangered Species Act requires the Fisheries Service to designate critical habitat for any threatened or endangered species.
Critical habitat designations will have immediate benefits, including improved water quality throughout the coastal zone, limits on overfishing, protections for spawning grounds, reduced impacts from development and dredging, and reduced human pressure on hundreds of thousands of reef-associated species.