Warming spurs U.S. to consider ESA protection for 82 coral species

Not sure I agree with this strategy or in the science behind it, but I heard this was coming.  The EPA is considering whether to list 82 new coral species in US Waters as threatened or endangered.  Acropora palmata and Acropora cervicornis were listed as vulnerable under the Endangered Species Act in May 2006.

From the Federal Register (Vol. 75, No. 27 / Wednesday, February 10, 2010)

Endangered and Threatened Wildlife; Notice of 90–Day Finding on a Petition to List 83 Species of Corals as Threatened or Endangered Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)

AGENCY: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of Commerce.

ACTION: 90–day petition finding; request for information.

SUMMARY: We (NMFS) announce a 90– day finding on a petition to list 83 species of corals as threatened or endangered under the ESA. We find that the petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned actions may be warranted for 82 species; we find that the petition fails to present substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted for Oculina varicosa. Therefore, we initiate status reviews of 82 species of corals to determine if listing under the ESA is warranted. To ensure these status reviews are comprehensive, we solicit scientific and commercial information regarding these coral species.

DATES: Information and comments must be submitted to NMFS by April 12, 2010.

The 83 species included in the petition are: Acanthastrea brevis, Acanthastrea hemprichii, Acanthastrea ishigakiensis, Acanthastrea regularis, Acropora aculeus, Acropora acuminate, Acropora aspera, Acropora dendrum, Acropora donei, Acropora globiceps, Acropora horrida, Acropora jacquelineae, Acropora listeri, Acropora lokani, Acropora microclados, Acropora palmerae, Acropora paniculata, Acropora pharaonis, Acropora polystoma, Acropora retusa, Acropora rudis, Acropora speciosa, Acropora striata, Acropora tenella, Acropora vaughani, Acropora verweyi, Agaricia lamarcki, Alveopora allingi, Alveopora fenestrate, Alveopora verrilliana, Anacropora puertogalerae, Anacropora spinosa, Astreopora cucullata, Barabattoia laddi, Caulastrea echinulata, Cyphastrea agassizi, Cyphastrea ocellina, Dendrogyra cylindrus, Dichocoenia stokesii, Euphyllia cristata, Euphyllia paraancora, Euphyllia paradivisa, Galaxea astreata, Heliopora coerulea, Isopora crateriformis, Isopora cuneata, Leptoseris incrustans, Leptoseris yabei, Millepora foveolata, Millepora tuberosa, Montastraea annularis, Montastraea faveolata, Montastraea franksi, Montipora angulata, Montipora australiensis, Montipora calcarea, Montipora caliculata, Montipora dilatata, Montipora flabellata, Montipora lobulata, Montipora patula, Mycetophyllia ferox, Oculina varicosa, Pachyseris rugosa, Pavona bipartite, Pavona cactus, Pavona decussate, Pavona diffluens, Pavona venosa, Pectinia alcicornis, Physogyra lichtensteini, Pocillopora danae, Pocillopora elegans, Porites horizontalata, Porites napopora, Porites nigrescens, Porites pukoensis, Psammocora stellata, Seriatopora aculeata, Turbinaria mesenterina, Turbinaria peltata, Turbinaria reniformis, and Turbinaria stellula. Eight of the petitioned species are in the Caribbean and belong to the following families: Agaricidae (1); Faviidae (3); Meandrinidae (2); Mussidae (1); Oculinidae (1).

The petition states that all of these species are classified as vulnerable (76 species), endangered (six species: Acropora rudis, Anacropora spinosa, Montipora dilatata, Montastraea annularis, M. faveolata, Millepora tuberosa), or critically endangered (one species: Porites pukoensis) by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Montipora dilatata and Oculina varicosa are also on our Species of Concern list.

See a summary article on corals as endangered species in the EoE here.

BY Allison Winter, E&E reporter

Published February 11, 2010, link to the original story here

The Obama administration will consider federal protection for 82 coral species threatened by warming water temperatures.

The National Marine Fisheries Service said yesterday that it has found “substantial scientific or commercial information” that Caribbean and Indo-Pacific corals may be threatened or endangered. Environmentalists have predicted the corals — found near Florida, Hawaii and U.S. territories — could be wiped out by midcentury if the government does not take steps to protect them from warming waters, rising ocean acidity and pollution.

The announcement in yesterday’s Federal Register launches a formal status review by federal biologists. The fisheries service will also accept public comment before deciding next year on whether to list the corals under the Endangered Species Act.

“The status review is an important step forward in protecting coral reefs, which scientists have warned may be the first worldwide ecosystem to collapse due to global warming,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “Endangered Species Act protection can provide a safety net for corals on the brink of extinction.”

The center asked the fisheries service last year to protect corals and threatened to sue the agency last month if it failed to act.

All of the species under consideration have seen population declines of at least 30 percent over 30 years, according to the center.

The group’s petition blamed myriad threats for the corals’ decline: ocean warming and acidification, shipping-channel dredging, coastal development, pollution from agriculture and development, disease, predation, reef fishing, marine debris, invasive species, aquarium trade, and damage from boats and anchors.

In the service’s finding yesterday, biologists agreed that the coral populations are at risk of collapse without recovery, given the population decline that has occurred already and mounting threats.

If the corals are protected as endangered species, it would be illegal to harm or kill the species. That could open commercial fishers, farmers and all the other industries cited in the petition to federal regulation or lawsuits from environmentalists. A “threatened” listing could be less restrictive. The fisheries service would write regulations to protect the corals.

The government now lists two Atlantic coral species, elkhorn and staghorn, as “threatened” due to disease, warming sea temperatures and hurricane damage.

The center had sought a listing for 83 species, but the government left one out of its proposal. The fisheries service said there was not enough evidence to consider a listing for the ivory tree coral, or Oculina varicosa. The ivory tree coral lives in shallow water from Florida to North Carolina and off Bermuda and the West Indies.

Click here to read the Federal Register announcement.

More details from the Register:

The petition states that all of these species are classified as vulnerable (76 species), endangered (six species: Acropora rudis, Anacropora spinosa, Montipora dilatata, Montastraea annularis, M. faveolata, Millepora tuberosa), or critically endangered (one species: Porites pukoensis) by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Montipora dilatata and Oculina varicosa are also on our Species of Concern list.

Under the ESA, a listing determination may address a ‘‘species,’’ which is defined to also include subspecies and, for any vertebrate species, a distinct population segment which interbreeds when mature (DPS) (16 U.S.C. 1532(16)). Because corals are invertebrate species, we are limited to assessing the status of species or subspecies of corals. A species or subspecies is ‘‘endangered’’ if it is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, and ‘‘threatened’’ if it is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range (ESA sections 3(6) and 3(20), respectively, 16 U.S.C. 1532(6) and (20)).

Of the 83 petitioned species, eight species occur in the U.S. waters of the Caribbean, and 75 occur in the U.S. waters of the Indo-Pacific. The petition includes species accounts (i.e., description of the species’ morphology, life history, habitat, distribution, and loss estimates over 30 years (20 years into the past and 10 years into the future)) of each of the 83 species, threats facing each species, and descriptions of the status of coral reef ecosystems of the wider Caribbean and Indo-Pacific areas. The petition asserts that all of the petitioned species have suffered population reductions of at least 30 percent over a 30–year period, relying on information from the IUCN.

Eight of the petitioned species occur in the Caribbean, and 75 in the Indo-Pacific.

Caribbean species include Agaricia lamarcki, Dendrogyra cylindrus, Dichocoenia stokesii, Montastraea annularis, Montastraea faveolata, and Montastraea franksii.

I agree there is sound evidence that these species have declined substantially (perhaps by 30% in relative terms) across the broader Caribbean over the last several decades.  Yet note a key to this petition passing the smile test is that each species has to have been found to have declined in US waters, which in the Caribbean, isn’t a lot of habitat.  The thing that has always bugged me about this approach, well one thing, is that although a coral species may have declined by 30% or more, there are in some cases literally tens or hundreds of millions of colonies throughout the species’ ranges. Thus it seems a stretch to suggest they are threatened with literal extinction.

Another is that I think this misses the point of coral conservation; which from my perspective is to restore or maximize coral cover.  As I argued in 2001 (Bruno and Bertness 2001) it would be pretty easy to protect populations of foundation species (i.e., habitat-forming species) without actually conserving their ecological function. Which is I think a weakness of the US Endangered Species Act.

The Caribbean, according to the petitioner, has the largest proportion of corals classified as being in one of the high extinction risk categories by the IUCN. The petitioner asserts that the region suffered massive losses of corals in response to climate-related events of 2005 including a record-breaking series of 26 tropical storms and elevated ocean water temperatures.,

This is a dubious argument, not supported by any peer-reviewed science.  IMO the losses caused by warming-bleaching were very isolated and modest in general, despite greater losses on some individual reefs.

Further, the petitioner asserts that the U.S. Virgin Islands lost 51.5 percent of live coral cover,

I very much doubt this and have seen evidence that contradicts this suggestion.  Most of the loss of live coral cover in the USVI appears to have occurred in 1989 and 1999 (Edmunds and Elahi 2007-see the figure below).  I also assume the values are relative coral cover, rather than absolute values, i.e., coral cover could have declined from %4 to 2% and this would be described as a “%50” loss.

Long-term trends in coral community dynamics on a reef at 9-m depth at Yawzi Point, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. (A) Percentage of coral cover at each survey period between March 1988 and August 2003.

The petitioner cites Gardner et al. (2003) in asserting that, over the three decades prior to the 2005 events, Caribbean reefs had already suffered an 80 percent decline in hard coral cover, from an average of 50 percent to an average of 10 percent throughout the region.

True, Gardner at al. 2003 does say/find this, but again, note the use of relative %loss values.  Also, we have a paper in press at MEPS (Schutte et al. 2010) that indicates Caribbean mean coral cover is closer to 20% (excluding the very low coral cover FL Keys) and has not noticibly declined since the mid-1980s. But perhaps this is quibbling. There is no doubt coral cover has declined. I just think there could be some exaggeration in the petition. Given what we have seen happening in the media recently, e.g., the IPCC reports, scientists should be really careful about the accuracy of their doom-and-gloom stories.

The abundance and trend information presented by the petitioner for each species is limited to an estimate of the percentage loss of its habitat and/or population over a 30–year period (including 20 years into the past and 10 years into the future), as assessed by the IUCN. However, the petition also asserts that these corals face significant threats. To support this assertion, the petitioner cites Alvarez-Filip et al. (2009) in noting the dramatic decline of the three- dimensional complexity of Caribbean reefs over the past 40 years, resulting in a phase shift from a coral-dominated ecosystem to fleshy macroalgal overgrowth in reef systems across the Caribbean.

We clearly showed this was not true in Bruno et al. 2009.  Very few reefs in the world are truly dominated by macroalgae in any meaningful sense.

Seventy-five percent of the world’s coral reefs can be found in the Indo- Pacific, which stretches from the Indonesian island of Sumatra in the west to French Polynesia in the east (Bruno and Selig (2007), as cited by the petitioner). As recently as 1,000 to 100 years ago, this region averaged about 50 percent coral cover, but 20–50 percent of that total has been lost, according to the petitioner. The petitioner cites Bruno and Selig (2007), stating that regional total coral cover averaged 42.5 percent during the early 1980s, 36.1 percent in 1995, and 22.1 percent in 2003.

Now this, as they say here in Oz, is some dodgy science!

The petition focuses on habitat threats, asserting that the habitat of the petitioned coral species, and indeed all reef-building coral species, is under threat from several processes linked to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, including increasing seawater temperatures, increasing ocean acidification, increasing storm intensities, changes in precipitation, and sea-level rise. The petition also asserts that these global habitat threats are exacerbated by local habitat threats posed by ship traffic, dredging, coastal development, pollution, and agricultural and land use practices that increase sedimentation and nutrient- loading.


Bruno J.F. & Bertness M.D. (2001) Habitat modification and facilitation in benthic marine communities. In: Marine Community Ecology (eds. Bertness MD, Gaines SD & Hay ME), pp. 201-218 Sinauer, Sunderland, MA

Bruno J.F., Sweatman H., Precht W.F., Selig E.R. & Schutte V.G.W. (2009) Assessing evidence of phase shifts from coral to macroalgal dominance on coral reefs. Ecology, 90, 1478–1484

Edmunds P.J. & Elahi R. (2007) The demographics of a 15-year decline in cover of the Caribbean reef coral Montastraea annularis. Ecological Monographs, 77, 3-18

Schutte V.G.W., Selig E.R. & Bruno J.F. (2010) Regional spatio-temporal trends in Caribbean coral reef benthic communities. Marine Ecology Progress Series, In Press

6 thoughts on “Warming spurs U.S. to consider ESA protection for 82 coral species

  1. Marc, assuming you are not joking, no, neither I nor this study has been “audited” in the denialosphere-McIntyre-witchunt sense.

    The main result (coral cover is declining globally) is generally confirmed, or more accurately concordant, with dozens of other similar papers of individual reefs or regions and some similar synthetic analysis, e.g,;

    Hughes T.P. (1994) Catastrophes, phase shifts, and large-scale degradation of a Caribbean coral reef. Science, 265, 1547-1551

    Bellwood D.R., Hughes T.P., Folke C. & Nystrom M. (2004) Confronting the coral reef crisis. 429, 833-833

    Gardner T.A., Cote I.M., Gill J.A., Grant A. & Watkinson A.R. (2003) Long-term region-wide declines in Caribbean corals. Science, 301, 958-960

    Pandolfi J.M., Bradbury R.H., Sala E., Hughes T.P., Bjorndal K.A., Cooke R.G., McArdle D., McClenachan L., Newman M.J.H., Paredes G., Warner R.R. & Jackson J.B.C. (2003) Global trajectories of the long-term decline of coral reef ecosystems. Science, 301, 955-958

    Also see any of the GCRMN Status of Coral Reefs of the World reports; http://www.gcrmn.org/

    That corals are being lost is pretty obvious even to a non-scientist. And I hope you noted from my post, that I am a pretty skeptical person. I think there are quite a lot of exaggerated claims about reef health (declines) out there and have said so in peer-reviewed publications, e.g., Bruno et al. 2009 (you can download the PDF from my home page, http://www.brunolab.net but it is a large file, also see Schutte et al 2010 when in comes out in a few weeks). Iv’e also co-authored papers describing surprisingly rapid reef recovery similar to Jez’s recent PLoS One paper. THAT SAID, we still have a problem and the prospects of 3-5C warming and 700+ppm of CO2 (leading to extreme acidification) are startling. And overfishing is still extreme on many reefs. SO, I know this is contradictory, but I am sort of a short-term moderate optimist but a long-pessimist on all this. But these are my mixed emotions and not facts.

    Back to my audit. Scientists don’t usually audit each others work. Our findings are verified (to a degree) in the peer-review process. Although that rarely includes actually sharing the data so that the reviewers can reanalyze it. The way we refute each others published but faulty work is to publish a new paper or write a letter to the editor.

    I can’t reveal the identity of the reviewers because peer review is usually anonymous. (I know don’t who the reviewers are). But I would publish (online-here) the reviews. I have been thinking of doing this for some time. I think it would be a pretty neat thing to be able to read reviews made by a papers journal reviewers. The journal PLoS One is actually starting to do this. It would make everything more transparent. I think it would also startle AGW deniers to see how fraking tough scientists are on one another under the veil of anonymity; we can be total bastards! I have often wanted to share reviews online just out of outrage and frustration with some of the crap you get back and also to shame journals and editors into enforcing a higher standard for reviewers and editors.

    Ill get the reviews together, but in the meantime, I’d be curious what others think about the ethics of releasing/publishing journal reviews. I don’t think it is an ethical violation, but am I missing something?

    Also, any other comments/questions Marc?


  2. I appreciate your starting to dissect this petition, which makes some rather astonishing assertions, at least for the Indo-Pacific.

    Do you have any idea how the list of Indo-Pacific corals were chosen?


  3. James, I don’t know for certain. And I am trying to get the report that the petition is based on (anybody know where that is?). But from what the report says and from talking with colleagues, I think it was based on Carpenter et al 2008, which used the IUCN red list procedures, which are described in the link here: http://www.eoearth.org/article/Corals_as_endangered_species

    But I am pretty sure the criteria only has to be met within US waters, so a decline there, but not throughout the whole range would result in listing.

    Please let us know if you discover anything else.


    Carpenter, K. E., M. Abrar, G. Aeby, R. B. Aronson, S. Banks, A. Bruckner, A. Chiriboga, J. Cortes, J. C. Delbeek, L. DeVantier, G. J. Edgar, A. J. Edwards, D. Fenner, H. M. Guzman, B. W. Hoeksema, G. Hodgson, O. Johan, W. Y. Licuanan, S. R. Livingstone, E. R. Lovell, J. A. Moore, D. O. Obura, D. Ochavillo, B. A. Polidoro, W. F. Precht, M. C. Quibilan, C. Reboton, Z. T. Richards, A. D. Rogers, J. Sanciangco, A. Sheppard, C. Sheppard, J. Smith, S. Stuart, E. Turak, J. E. N. Veron, C. Wallace, E. Weil, and E. Wood. 2008. One-third of reef-building corals face elevated extinction risk from climate change and local impacts. Science 321:560-563.

  4. Thanks, John. We are following this at CORAL Magazine.

    Here’s a story about this on our site, including some comments from Marshall Meyers, head of the Pet Industry Joint Council (PIJAC) in Washington.

    He’s looking for coral biologists to help respond to this petition to be sure that any decision by the US government is “science-based”.


  5. Pingback: Conservation Group Seeks Listing of 83 Coral Species Under Endangered Species Act | glassbox-design.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *