Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, March 27, 2023


Emily Jeffers, (408) 348-6958,

Lawsuit Seeks Protected Habitat for Endangered Corals

Keystone Species Need Safeguards Around Florida, Pacific Islands

WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity sued the National Marine Fisheries Service today for failing to finalize protections for 12 coral species around Florida and islands in the Pacific Ocean. Pillar coral, mountainous star coral and the others were all listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2014 but have not received the critical habitat designation the law requires.

“Coral reefs are the backbones of a healthy ocean, but federal officials aren’t giving them the protected habitat they need to thrive,” said Emily Jeffers, an attorney at the Center. “Climate change has been a huge blow to these species, raising the existential threats of ocean warming and acidification. We’ll have to address greenhouse gas pollution to truly ensure that corals survive. But designating habitat can improve water quality, which will go a long way toward helping these suffering species.”

Coral populations have declined dramatically because of climate change, pollution and overfishing. 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.

Designating critical habitat protection for an endangered species makes it twice as likely to recover as those without safeguards. Critical habitat designation could improve water quality throughout the coastal zone, limit over-fishing and protect spawning grounds, reduce harm from development and dredging, and reduce human pressure on hundreds of thousands of species supported by reefs. The protections would not close off areas for people to swim, fish and recreate.

The Fisheries Service listed 20 species of corals in 2014 as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, with 12 of those species occurring within U.S. waters. In 2020, prompted by a legal settlement with the Center, the federal government proposed to designate more than 6,000 square miles of critical habitat protections off Florida, in the Caribbean, and in the Pacific Ocean, but has not yet finalized the proposal.

The five Caribbean corals listed 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 seven Pacific corals are Acropora globiceps, Acropora jacquelineae, Acropora retusa, Acropora speciosa, Euphyllia paradivisa, Isopora crateriformis and Seriatopora aculeate.

The proposed Caribbean critical habitat rule would protect 5,900 square miles of habitat off Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Flower Garden Banks in the Gulf of Mexico. The proposed Pacific rule would protect 230 square miles of marine habitat around American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Pacific Remote Islands.

Today’s lawsuit challenges the Service’s failure to finalize critical habitat designations for coral within one year of their proposal, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

Pillar coral and threespot damselfish. Credit: USFWS. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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