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Petition Seeks Protection for 83 Coral Species in U.S. Waters

SAN FRANCISCO, California, October 20, 2009 (ENS) – The Center for Biological Diversity today filed a formal petition asking the federal government to protect 83 imperiled coral species under the Endangered Species Act and to designate critical habitat to ensure their survival and recovery.

The nonprofit conservation group petitioned the Secretary of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, through the National Marine Fisheries Service. NOAA Fisheries must respond to the petition within 90 days and within one year must determine whether listing is warranted for each of the 83 coral species.

These corals, all of which occur in U.S. waters from Florida and Hawaii to U.S. territories in the Caribbean and Pacific, face a growing threat of extinction due to rising ocean temperatures caused by global warming, and the related threat of ocean acidification.

Scientists have warned that coral reefs are likely to be the first worldwide ecosystem to collapse due to global warming. All the world’s reefs could be destroyed by 2050.

Australian coral biologist Charlie Veron warned in a scientific paper earlier this year that at current levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (387 parts per million) most of the world’s coral reefs are destined for irreversible decline.

“Coral reefs are the world’s most endangered ecosystems and provide an early warning of impacts to come from our thirst for fossil fuels,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Within a few decades, global warming and ocean acidification threaten to completely unravel magnificent coral reefs that took millions of years to build.”

The world’s corals and coral reef ecosystems are in crisis, the Center explains in the petition. Nearly 20 percent of the world’s coral reefs have already been lost, and approximately one-third of all zooxanthellate reefbuilding coral species are at risk of extinction, according to the Veron and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

“Corals face widespread threats ranging from habitat destruction, pollution, overharvest, and disease,” the Center states in its 198-page petition.

When corals are stressed by warm ocean temperatures, they experience bleaching, which means they expel the colorful algae upon which they rely for energy and growth.

Bleached coral in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (Photo courtesy NASA)

Carbon dioxide emitted by human activities is increasing so abruptly that it is now causing fatal mass bleaching of corals worldwide and is set to trigger global mass extinctions through ocean acidification, says Veron, who the Center cites often in its petition.

Ocean acidification and global warming make corals more susceptible to other threats that have led to the present degraded state of U.S. coral reefs, the Center ays in its petition, naming destructive fishing, agriculture runoff, storms, sea-level rise, pollution, abrasion, predation, and disease.

Ocean acidification, caused by the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide, is already impairing the ability of corals to build their protective skeletons. At atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of 450 ppm, scientists predict that reef erosion will eclipse the ability of corals to grow.

The Center cites scientific warnings that CO2 concentrations must be reduced to levels below 350 ppm to protect corals and avoid mass extinctions on land and sea.

The CO2 reductions proposed in the climate bill now making its way through Congress are unlikely to result in an atmospheric concentration below 450 ppm, much less 350 ppm, the Center says.

“The coral conservation crisis is already so severe that preventing the extinction of coral reefs and the marine life that depends upon them is an enormous undertaking. The Endangered Species Act has an important role to play in that effort,” said Sakashita. “But without rapid CO2 reductions, the fate of the world’s coral reefs will be sealed.”

In 2006, elkhorn and staghorn corals, which occur in Florida and the Caribbean, became the first, and are to date the only coral species protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The listing of staghorn and elkhorn corals as threatened, which also came in response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, marked the first time the U.S. government acknowledged global warming as a primary threat to the survival of a species. As documented in today’s petition, many other corals are also at risk.

Protection of these 83 corals under the Endangered Species Act would open the door to greater opportunities for coral reef conservation, the petition argues, because activities ranging from fishing, dumping, dredging, and offshore oil development, all of which hurt corals, would be subject to stricter regulatory scrutiny.

The Endangered Species Act listing would require federal agencies to ensure that that their actions do not harm the coral species.

Coming this Thursday, many of the 83 corals mentioned in the petition will also be featured in the Center for Biological Diversity’s photo installation “350 Reasons We Need to Get to 350,” which showcases 350 species that may be lost to global warming if urgent action to curb climate change is not taken.

Click here to view the entire petition.

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