For Immediate Release, October 20, 2009
Contact: Miyoko Sakashita, (415) 436-9682 x 308, email@example.com
SAN FRANCISCO— The Center for Biological Diversity today filed a formal petition seeking to protect 83 imperiled coral species under the Endangered Species Act. These corals, all of which occur in U.S. waters ranging 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.
“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.”
Corals are among the species most imperiled by climate change. 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. Many corals die or succumb to disease after bleaching. Mass bleaching events have become much more frequent and severe as ocean temperatures have risen in recent decades. Scientists predict that most of the world’s corals will be subjected to mass bleaching events at deadly frequencies within 20 years on our current emissions path.
Not only is greenhouse gas pollution causing corals to bleach and die, but it also makes it difficult for corals to grow and rebuild their colonies. Ocean acidification, caused by the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide, is already impairing the ability of corals to build their protective skeletons. At CO2 levels of 450 ppm, scientists predict that reef erosion will eclipse the ability of corals to grow. Moreover, ocean acidification and global warming render corals even more susceptible to other threats that have led to the present degraded state of our reefs, including destructive fishing, agriculture runoff, storms, sea-level rise, pollution, abrasion, predation, and disease.
Leading coral biologist Charles Veron warned in a recent scientific paper that at current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere (387 ppm) most of the world’s coral reefs are committed to an irreversible decline. Other scientists have warned 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 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,” added 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 to date 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 under the Endangered Species Act would open the door to greater opportunities for coral reef conservation, as activities ranging from fishing, dumping, dredging, and offshore oil development, all of which hurt corals, would be subject to stricter regulatory scrutiny. Additionally, the Endangered Species Act would require federal agencies to ensure that that their actions do not harm the coral species, which could result in agencies approving projects with significant greenhouse gas emissions to consider and minimize such impacts on vulnerable coral species.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must respond to the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition to list 83 species of coral within 90 days and determine whether listing is warranted for each of the coral species within one year.
For more information about the Center’s coral conservation campaign, visit: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/coral_conservation/index.html.
Coming this Thursday, many of the petitioned-for corals will also be featured in 350 Reasons We Need to Get to 350 – the Center for Biological Diversity’s photo installation of 350 species we may lose to global warming if we don’t act soon.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with 240,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.