Federal fishery managers proposed listing 66 new species of coral to the Endangered Species List and increasing the severity of the listing and protections for two other federally protected species of coral found in the Florida Keys.
The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries announced Friday that in addition to listing the news species, elkhorn and staghorn will go from the less dire listing of threatened to the more severe listing of endangered. The two species were already on the Endangered Species List.
Before the proposed listings are finalized in late 2013, there will be a 90-day public comment period during which NOAA will hold 18 public meetings. There will be a meeting in Key Largo and in Key West in January, NOAA officials said.
Protection under the Endangered Species Act would mean habitat protections, recovery planning, prohibitions on harming corals, and most importantly, prohibition of federal actions that could jeopardize the corals.
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, said Jen Moore, a NOAA coral biologist involved in the listing.
"I can't say it would make it more harder or less harder, but this will require more review and consultation with us," Moore said.
The proposal was sparked by a petition from the national environmental group Centers for Biological Diversity, which also successfully petitioned the listing of staghorn and elkhorn.
"Protecting these corals as endangered is a landmark decision," said Miyoko Sakashita, the center's oceans director. "It shows that coral reefs are in crisis, and they need federal protections as a safety net. It's great news for our coral reefs that will gain new conservation benefits. Millions of people rely on corals, so we all have an interest in saving them."
The group began requesting greater federal protection for coral to protect species from global warming, disease and ocean acidification, which are driving them toward extinction, Sakashita 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 has been not a lot of new recruitment in new coral colonies, said Margaret Miller, a NOAA coral biologist who was involved in the listing.
A coral bleaching event in 2005 and a cold snap in 2010 also wiped out large swaths of elkhorn, staghorn and other coral species in the Keys, Miller said.
This lack of recruitment 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.
"Our understanding is there has been a stability with coral, but it is being punctuated by these catastrophic events," Miller said.
Corals have measurable economic value for communities around the world.
One independent study reported that coral reefs provide approximate $483 million in annual net benefit to the U.S. economy from tourism and recreational activities.
NOAA also estimates the annual commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs to be more than $100 million, and reef-based recreational fisheries generate an additional $100 million annually.