Corals may get their first protection under the Endangered Species Act. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) National Marine Fisheries Service announced last week that it is considering listing staghorn and elkhorn corals as threatened. A listing could have broad implications for the management of activities that affect corals from fishing to farming.
Corals are in trouble. Around the world, nutrient-rich runoff from agricultural lands, sediment, and warmer waters have stressed the symbiotic zooxanthellae that live within coral. In March 2004, a San Francisco-based advocacy group called the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned NOAA to list three kinds of coral found in U.S. waters as threatened or endangered.
NOAA then reviewed the condition of these corals in waters off Florida and elsewhere in the U.S, and it found that staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) and elkhorn (A. palmate) coral should be listed as threatened. (The third coral is a hybrid and is not eligible for protection, NOAA found.) The agency will publish a proposed rule to list the two species in the Federal Register. It will then ask for and evaluate public comments.
Classifying the species as threatened could conceivably lead to regulation of fishing (which removes the herbivores that keep algae in check) and emissions of greenhouse gases (which make the seas uncomfortably warm for coral), says marine biologist Ellen Pikitch, executive director of the University of Miami's Pew Institute for Ocean Science. But coral researcher Andrew Baker of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York predicts that the listing would be "no silver bullet, since many of the factors contributing to the decline of Acropora may well be beyond the scope of the ESA to regulate."
Still, a listing will provide helpful public relations for coral, says Baker. "It will also signal leadership for the U.S. in coral reef conservation in the Caribbean region and hopefully lead to basin-wide initiatives to protect the few remaining populations of these species," adds Tim McClanahan of WCS in Mombasa, Kenya. He notes that many other, less visible coral species are probably also being lost.