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article imageGovt adds 20 species of coral to endangered species list

By Megan Hamilton     Aug 30, 2014 in Environment
St. Petersburg - More than a dozen species of corals are the newest addition to the Endangered Species Act, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Announced on Tuesday. The listing of 20 species is the largest Endangered Species Act ruling ever.
Worldwide, reef-building corals are in serious trouble, National Geographic reports. These corals are suffering the effects of ocean acidification, rising ocean temperatures, and pollution.
Bleaching is having a devastating effect on many species and this causes corals to turn a ghostly white, expelling the symbiotic algae that they depend upon. Sometimes bleaching is so devastating that whole reefs turn white.
The newly listed species aren’t going extinct just yet, but they are in trouble and could very well become extinct in the not-too-distant future. This is why the ESA has designated them as “threatened.”
“Most of these species, particularly in the Caribbean, have started to experience some impacts from bleaching and elevated temperatures and disease,” David Bernhart, a biologist with the NOAA Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg, Florida told National Geographic.
Fifteen of these beautiful species inhabit the waters of the Indo-Pacific region, around American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Pacific Remote Islands — these are a national monument that includes atolls in the Line and Marshall Islands. The other five species inhabit the Caribbean near Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, per National Geographic.
What are corals and why are they important?
When most of us think of corals, we think of reef building stony corals. In reality, there are also soft corals and deep water corals that live in cold, dark waters, according to NOAA Ocean Service Education.
Nearly all corals live in colonies. These colonies can consist of thousands of individual animals, called polyps. Each polyp has a stomach that only opens at one end. This opening, the mouth, is surrounded by tentacles. The tiny animal uses these tentacles for defense, capturing even tinier animals for food, and to clear away debris. Once the little creature consumes the food, it expels waste products through the same opening.
As a rule, corals feed at night, extending tentacles that are equipped with stinging cells that are called nematocysts. The nematocysts are essential for capturing prey, which can range in size from tiny zooplankton to small fish, depending on how large the coral polyps are.
Corals also provide homes for tiny algae, called zooxanthellae. In a sort of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine,” relationship, the coral provides the algae with safety and the compounds necessary for photosynthesis. In turn, the algae produce oxygen and help the coral remove wastes. Zooxanthellae also supply the coral with glucose, glycerol, and amino acids — the byproducts of photosynthesis. The coral then uses these products to produce proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and also to produce calcium carbonate. It’s because of the relationship between the algae and its coral hosts that beneficial nutrients are recycled into nutrient-poor tropical waters, per the NOAA.
Along with providing corals with beneficial nutrients, zooxanthellae also give corals their distinctive and beautiful coloring. The algae need sunlight for photosynthesis, and therefore reef corals need clear water.
Coral reefs can be spectacularly beautiful, looking like vivid gardens even though they are animals. All of this beauty supports vast ecosystems that can sometimes seem almost mind-boggling because of their sheer size.
Some 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard corals and hundreds of other marine organisms rely on coral reefs for sustenance and protection. Scientists estimate that another one to eight million undiscovered species may be living in and around these reefs.
Colorful reef fishes.
Colorful reef fishes.
Octaviolopez Morguefile.
Coral reef biodiversity may be the key to finding new medicines and many drugs are now being developed from reef animals and plants as possible cures for cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, viruses, and other diseases, the NOAA reports.
Estimates show that coral reefs may provide goods and services worth $375 billion each year — a pretty amazing figure for an environment that covers less than one percent of Earth’s surface, the NOAA reports. Reefs that are flourishing and healthy contribute to local economies via tourism. Diving tours, fishing trips, hotels, restaurants and scores of other businesses based near reef systems provide millions of jobs and contribute billions of dollars worldwide. In just the Florida Keys alone, millions of people visit coral reefs, recent studies show. These reefs alone are estimated to have an asset value of $7.6 billion.
In some ways, coral reefs are like living walls, and as such they serve as nurseries for fish. Defenders of Wildlife reports that one-third of all saltwater fish species spend at least part of their lives among these walls.
Mandarinfish are beautiful denizens of coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific.
Mandarinfish are beautiful denizens of coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific.
Schnuffel Morguefile.
All fish play a role in the food chain in one way or another, but many also serve other important roles in the world’s oceans. Herbivorous fish like surgeonfish and parrotfish keep seaweed-like algae from smothering coral reefs. Cleaner wrasses help larger fish stay healthy by picking off parasites and dead skin, Defenders reports.
The decision to list the corals on the ESA came after a review and comment period and the general public and researchers provided reams of information on the various species that were being considered, Eileen Sobeck, an assistant administrator with NOAA Fisheries told National Geographic.
“I feel quite confident that we have a very robust, science-based decision regarding these 20 species,” she said.
Other agencies will be the most affected by the new protections, Sobeck said. If, for instance, an agency like the Environmental Protection Agency or the Army Corps of Engineers wants to work in an area that may affect a protected coral species, the agency must first consult with the NOAA to arrange the proper permits.
Other activities like fishing and tourism aren’t affected right now. Also, the use of fertilizer on land, which often winds up as runoff and pollutes the water where these corals live, isn’t affected either. Plus, if officials want to implement regulations to protect any of these species, by designating “no-take” zones, they have to go through a different process. This process includes economic impact reviews and a period of public comment, Sobeck told National Geographic.
In short, the agency didn’t come up with any new rules yet that would prevent coral from being damaged or harvested, per Yahoo! News.
“There is a growing body of expert scientists talking about a risk of mass extinction in the sea and on land,” Elliott Norse, founder and chief scientist of the Marine Conservation Institute of Seattle said, according to Yahoo. Coral “are organisms on the front line of anything that humans do.”
“I hope this wakes people up and we don’t have to lose more coral,” Norse said.
In a sense, corals are a sort of canary in the coal mine. It's very clear that these new "protections" need to be considerably stronger than they are. If that doesn't happen, coral reefs will continue to die at astonishing rates and if they become extinct, they will almost certainly take many other species with them.
What will the world lose if we lose corals?
More about corals, Coral reefs, NOAA, noaa endangered species act, Esa
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