Federal fishery managers held two workshops in the Florida Keys this week to take public comment on the proposed listing of several species of coral on the Endangered Species List.
But local divers and fishermen argued the listing wouldn't be enough, because it doesn't address land-based threats such as agriculture and development.
The divers and fishermen cited runoff from the hundreds of miles of farm fields and uncontrolled development in Florida as serious threats to the Florida Keys reef.
In November, federal fishery managers announced the proposed listing of 66 new species of coral to the Endangered Species List -- including five species found in the Keys -- and heightening the degree of the listing and protections for two other federally protected species of coral, also found in the Florida Keys.
The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries proposed changing the listing of elkhorn and staghorn from "threatened" to the more dire "endangered." The two species were already on the Endangered Species List.
Before the proposed listings are finalized in late 2013, NOAA will accept public comment through March. NOAA also held 18 public meetings, including the meetings in Key Largo and Key West this week.
Local divers and fishermen questioned if the listing would go far enough. Longtime commercial fishermen and research diver Don DeMaria argued the federal fishery managers need to look at land-based forms of pollution if they want to protect the Florida Keys reef.
"I'm not sure if the listing is the answer," said DeMaria, who has been diving in the Keys since the 1960s. "It (the reef) used to be stunning. The coral was healthy and the water was blue. Now, the coral is dead and the water is green."
He went on to say, "I will be the first to admit that there is a problem ... . Agriculture needs to be addressed. The scale of agriculture in this state is mind-boggling. If it is feeding people or protecting corals, you know who is going to win."
Jaime Gilrein echoed DeMaria's concerns, but said the government needs to do something.
"It is scary to think that there were no corals left here for the next generation," the mother of two said. "We have to do something. We need to set an example for other countries to follow."
Protection under the Endangered Species Act means habitat protection, recovery planning, prohibitions on harming and -- most importantly -- on federal actions that could jeopardize the corals, said Jen Moore, a NOAA coral biologist who hosted the meetings in the Keys.
The proposed listing also would impact any potential dredging and widening of the Key West shipping channel, as mountain star coral -- proposed for the Endangered Species List -- are found in great abundance there.
The city is considering widening the channel to make room for bigger cruise ships.
The Army Corps of Engineers and others involved in the potential dredging project would have to consult NOAA about coral impacts before any dredging could occur, Moore said.
NOAA has identified 19 threats to the survival of coral, including rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification and coral disease. As carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere, the oceans warm beyond what corals can withstand, leading to bleaching, and the frequency and severity of disease outbreaks increase, causing die-offs.
The Keys' reef, which encompasses hundreds of miles of coral from Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas, has seen a significant reduction in coral colonies in the past 20 years.
In the past decade, the reduction has not been as significant, but there hasn't been a lot of new growth in coral colonies, according to Margaret Miller, a NOAA coral biologist who has worked on the proposed listing.
A coral bleaching event in 2005 and a cold snap in 2010 also wiped out large swaths of elkhorn and staghorn coral.
This lack of growth sparked NOAA to increase the severity of the listing for elkhorn and staghorn coral, Miller said. For the past three years, coral spawning within sanctuary waters has also been down, Miller said.
Corals have measurable economic value for communities around the world.
One independent study reported that coral reefs provide about $483 million in annual net benefit to the U.S. economy from tourism and recreational activities.
NOAA estimates the annual commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs at more than $100 million, and reef-based recreational fisheries generate an additional $100 million annually.
NOAA plans to have to the listings complete by December, Moore said.