In 2012, the NOAA made it known that they were considering listing 66 stony coral species as threatened. After receiving extensive public comments to the tune of 42,000 letters and emails along with another 32,000 emails after extending the comments period, NOAA has just announced the addition of 20 coral species as “threatened” to the Threatened Species list.
This ruling does not automatically ban the trade of these corals for the time being, those decisions are still in the pipeline and will come out soon enough, but they do state that “we will evaluate whether there are protective regulations necessary and advisable for the conservation of any of the 20 species newly-listed as threatened in this final rule, including application of some or all of the take prohibitions.” The 20 threatened species, released in a 1,104 page pdf are as follows:
From US Waters:?Acropora cervicornis (Staghorn), ?Acropora palmata (Elkhorn), ?Mycetophyllia ferox, ?Dendrogyra cylindrus, ?Orbicella annularis, ?Orbicella faveolata, ?Orbicella franksi. ??From international Pacific Waters: ?Acropora globiceps?, A. jacquelineae, ?A. lokani, ?A. pharaonis, ?A. retusa, ?A. rudis, ?A. speciosa, ?A. tenella, ?Anacropora spinosa, ?Euphyllia paradivisa, ?Isopora crateriformis, ?Montipora australiensis, ?Pavona diffluens, ?Porites napopora, and ?Seriatopora aculeata.
Some may notice that this list includes some of the most well-known and ubiquitous corals in the hobby, such as Euphyllia paradivisa, also known as a branching frogspawn. This coral is one of the most widespread both in the hobby and in the wild – you might be hard-pressed to find a local fish store that does not have one in stock – but is now a threatened species.
Acropora lokani and A. jacquelineae, also corals that can be found at dozens of online retailers and tens of thousands of aquariums, are now threatened as well. What that means at this time is uncertain, but big things are on the way as the NOAA states that “Conservation measures provided for species listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA may include recovery plans (16 U.S.C. 1553(f)), critical habitat designations, Federal agency consultation requirements (16 U.S.C. 1536), and prohibitions on taking (16 U.S.C. 1538).”
NOAA acknowledges comments that the Acropora species are difficult to correctly identify “the taxonomic uncertainty confounds the available information regarding the status of each species, thus it is not possible to determine the listing status of these species with adequate confidence.” Further noting the comment opinion that “lack of information, or ambiguity and uncertainty in available information, is so great that any listing determination on such a basis would be arbitrary.”
In layman’s terms, this essentially means “some of these are difficult to correctly identify, and the fact that they’re being banned by species is completely arbitrary with no basis in real science for each species.” This is similar to wanting to ban the trade of birds, and simply picking some species at random to declare as threatened, almost undoubtedly how widespread corals like Euphyllia paradivisa and Acropora lokani ended up being listed as endangered. If this sounds cartoonish, how we got here is even more surreal.
This list stems from a list of 83 corals originally submitted to the NOAA in 2009 by the dubiously named Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental activist organization in the same vein as Sea Shepherd and the like, who are attacking aquarium trade collection in Hawaii, who threatened a lawsuit if the NOAA kept ignoring their claims that these corals deserved endangered status.
Contrary to what you may imagine, these scientists never even dove in the waters where these corals exist; the corals’ habitats were never examined, and in fact these scientists never left the comfort of their US offices. There are no peer reviewed studies supporting their opinions that these corals should be endangered.
While their page begins with declaring that the dangers corals face are predominantly global warming and ocean acidification from rising CO2 levels , this is about as far into the territory of science as they are willing to go. Their true colors come out later on, where they state that Acropora should be added to the endangered species list because “these corals are extremely sensitive to bleaching and disease, and they’re slow to recover,” which is a bit extreme since our hobby has shown them to be very resilient corals in the face of many pests.
In any event, it is a tenuous thread upon which to make the determination that this sole characteristic should make them endangered. There are houseplants that are harder to keep than Acropora, and sensitivity to bleaching or disease do not imply endangered status. They go further into the typical inflammatory language against our hobby by stating that flowerpots (Goniopora) are “overexploited by the aquarium trade,” something for which, like nearly everything else on their list, they offer no factual basis. For its part, NOAA did state that “collection and trade [for the aquarium industry] was ultimately ranked as a low level threat to corals in general.”
Let’s be clear with what has happened: an environmental organization decided and succeeded, with no real science backing their cause, that their opinion should dictate which species may end up not being allowed in the hobby, and the NOAA has listened. Fixing the real causes of reef degradation are difficult and do not make for good headlines, but banning the import of corals that are only coming in due to our hobby, while essentially having no net benefit for reefs, can be touted as a victory.
You can rest assured of more lawsuits to come should NOAA decide not to ban imports or trade on these corals and this is only the beginning.
This post is a guest contribution from Miguel Tolosa, author of Practical Coral Farming just released in a second edition.