I’m a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity and one of the
authors of the petition to list the 83 corals. I wanted to respond to some
of the issues that have been raised about the 20 corals that were recently
listed, including the Center’s role, what the listing means, and steps
The Center petitioned to list 83 corals in 2009 to provide added
conservation tools to help these corals survive and recover in the face of
the growing threats from ocean warming, ocean acidification, disease, and
the myriad of other stressors they face. The ESA will give these corals (1)
protection of essential habitat in US waters, (2) a comprehensive recovery
plan with actions to recover these species, such as reducing ocean warming
and acidification impacts, mitigating local stressors, and implementing
coral restoration and ecosystem conservation activities; (3) reduction of
harms from federal government activities including energy projects,
discharge of pollution from point sources, non-point source pollution,
dredging, pile-driving, setting of water quality standards, vessel traffic,
aquaculture facilities, military activities, and fisheries management
practices; and (4) increased public attention and research momentum at a
time when more conservation action, research, and awareness about the coral
crisis is urgently needed.
A number of people on this list have already suggested helpful ideas for
research priorities and recovery actions for these newly listed corals. We
look forward to working with coral scientists, NMFS, NGOs, and others
interested in coral conservation to discuss ideas for research and
conservation priorities to make ESA protection as meaningful as possible for
Here are some responses to questions that have been raised on the listserve
about the Center’s role in the coral listing process and what the ESA
What is the Center for Biological Diversity?
For those of you who don’t know us, the Center is a non-profit conservation
organization dedicated to protecting endangered species and wild places
through science, policy, education and environmental law. Our organization
is made up of scientists, organizers, campaigners, policy analysts,
conservation advocates, communications staff, support staff, and
environmental lawyers who work to make sure our keystone environmental laws
are implemented and enforced. Everyone here is very dedicated to making
positive conservation change, and is very knowledgeable about the species
and ecosystems they work to protect.
Our Climate and Oceans programs worked together on this petition. Our
Climate program focuses on protecting species threatened with extinction
from climate change and limiting the carbon pollution that threatens them.
Our Oceans program works to protect marine species in US waters from a suite
a threats, and has long worked to reduce the threat of ocean acidification.
The Center has worked on coral conservation efforts in US waters for more
than a decade. We petitioned to list the elkhorn and staghorn corals in
2004, and went to court to make sure these corals got critical habitat
protection and a recovery plan when NMFS was overdue on issuing these
How did the Center select the 83 corals?
We selected the 83 corals based on (1) their designation as vulnerable,
endangered, or critically endangered by the IUCN based on the analysis by
Kent Carpenter and co-authors, summarized in their 2008 Science paper, (2)
their occurrence in US waters where ESA protections can provide the most
benefit, and (3) studies indicating that they are declining and/or
particularly vulnerable to threats. We wrote and submitted a 198-page
scientific petition in 2009 that cited more than 200 scientific studies.
We recognize that may be disagreement about the species that we petitioned
for and the species that NMFS ultimately listed. People may have wanted more
species, fewer species, or different species listed. We petitioned for the
83 corals based on the scientific evidence available in 2009. Coral
scientists and other citizens always have the option to petition NMFS to
designate additional corals for protection
How does the petition process work?
The ESA allows any citizen to submit a scientific petition to our wildlife
protection agencies, FWS or NMFS, requesting that the agency evaluate the
scientific evidence for protecting that species under the ESA as
“endangered” (in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant
portion of its range) or “threatened” (likely to become endangered in the
foreseeable future). NMFS and FWS can and should initiate the listing
process on their own, but this is uncommon. After receiving a petition, the
agency must determine whether the information in the petition and in the
agency’s possession is sufficient to show that the species may be threatened
or endangered. If so, the agency initiates a scientific status review of
that species to determine whether it merits listing, and then takes an
additional year to finalize a proposed listing.
In the case of the corals, NMFS determined that 82 of the 83 petitioned
species merited a scientific status review. Based on an extended status
review and public comment period, NMFS proposed 66 corals for listing as
threatened or endangered, and additionally proposed uplisting for elkhorn
and staghorn corals from threatened to endangered. After an additional
public comment period and review, NMFS finalized a threatened listing for 20
What does the ESA listing mean for the 20 corals?
The ESA provides mandatory conservation tools to increase protections for
listed corals. These include:
(1) Protection of critical habitat in US waters.
(2) A science-based recovery plan with specific management and research
actions to help each listed species survive and recover.
(3) Protection from federal government activities that could harm the corals
and their habitat. US government agencies must consult with federal
biologists to ensure that their actions do not harm listed corals. Through
this consultation process, federal agencies whose activities could harm
corals and their habitat, for example through water pollution, dredging,
commercial fishing, and coastal construction, must analyze their impacts on
corals and take steps to reduce or eliminate them, thereby minimizing
stressors on coral reefs.
(4) Raising greater public awareness about threats to corals to mobilize
support for conservation action. The fact that 22 corals in US waters have
been identified as at risk of extinction primarily due to ocean warming,
ocean acidification, and disease sends a strong message on the need for
meaningful action to reduce carbon pollution at the national and
Studies have shown the ESA to be effective at preventing extinction and
recovering listed species. The ESA has prevented the extinction of 99% of
species that have been listed to date. One study estimated that 227 listed
plants and animals would have disappeared by 2006 if not for the ESA’s
protections. A recent analysis concluded that the ESA has been successful in
recovering listed species: 90 percent of sampled species are recovering at
the rate specified by their recovery plans
What has the ESA done to help the elkhorn and staghorn coral that were
listed in 2006?
The elkhorn and staghorn corals, which were listed as threatened in 2006,
have received a number of important ESA protections:
(1) The designation of almost 3,000 square miles of protected critical
habitat in US waters in 2008.
(2) The issuance of a draft recovery plan in 2014, which is now open for
public comment through October 20:
(3) US federal agencies have been required to modify a wide range of
projects to reduce harms to these corals, including mitigation to harbor
construction projects, the laying of undersea cable, fisheries management
plans, and park management plans.
(4) ESA protection has allowed citizens to challenge government actions that
are harming corals. For example, the Center and allies challenged NMFS’s
authorization of targeted fishing for parrotfish and other algae-eating reef
fish that threatens the health of elkhorn and staghorn corals. In 2013, the
court determined that NMFS must do a better job monitoring the effects of
commercial fishing on elkhorn and staghorn coral in the U.S. Virgin Islands
and Puerto Rico.
How does ESA protection affect research activities?
ESA listing typically directs more research attention and funding to listed
species. The number of published studies on a species often increases
significantly following a listing. In addition, the scientific status review
during the ESA listing process and the recovery plan developed after listing
identify key research gaps and research priorities that can mobilize
research attention and funding.
Researchers do not need a permit from NMFS for research or enhancement
activities for the 20 newly listed corals:
What are next steps forward for listed corals?
Several important next steps forward include:
(1) identifying research gaps and research priorities to better characterize
the natural history, population status and trends, threats, and conservation
priorities for these corals;
(2) identifying and designating critical habitat areas essential to help
these corals survive and recover, including occupied and unoccupied areas
and climate refugia;
(3) identifying and implementing the suite of recovery actions needed to
help each species survive and recover. For example, the 2014 draft recovery
plan for the elkhorn and staghorn corals includes (a) actions to address
ocean warming and acidification impacts on these species, (b) local threat
reductions and mitigation strategies, (c) in and ex situ conservation and
restoration such as population enhancement through restoration, restocking,
and active management, and (d) ecosystem-level actions to improve habitat
quality and restore keystone reef species and functional processes.
(4) raising public awareness about the coral crisis and what we can do to
help as scientists, policy makers, conservation practitioners, and concerned
Shaye Wolf, Ph.D.
Climate Science Director
Center for Biological Diversity