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NOAA officials discuss proposal to list corals under ESA

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Posted: Thursday, February 7, 2013 12:45 am

LIHU‘E — A small but fiery crowd of biologists, fishermen and ocean enthusiasts gathered in Lihu‘e Monday to ask questions and provide comments related to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s proposal to list 66 species of corals under the Endangered Species Act.

In 2009, NOAA received a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to consider listing 83 species. After a comprehensive biological review, NOAA decided to propose 66 of those corals — 54 as threatened and 12 as endangered. The primary threats to these species are both global and local in nature, including rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, disease, poor land use and destructive fishing practices.

“As we all know, our daily lives in Hawai‘i are really closely connected to corals and coral reefs,” Lance Smith of the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office said to start his brief presentation. “We recognize there are some concerns about the potential impacts of coral listings under the Endangered Species Act on recreation fishing and other activities. We also recognize there’s a lot of interest in how coral listings could help protect corals and coral reefs, and so we’re trying to address both of those issues tonight.”

Of the 66 proposed coral species, 59 are found in the Pacific and seven in the Caribbean. Of those in the Pacific, three are found in Hawai‘i. Only two are generally found in the main Hawaiian islands, with the third specific to the Northwestern islands.

The diseased rice coral found in Kaua‘i’s North Shore, which NOAA plans investigate in March, is not one of the corals that the organization is proposing to list under the ESA.

In its biological report, Smith said NOAA “determined that most of the coral species that the report covers are likely to be endanger of extinction by the year 2100.”

The purpose of the ESA is to prevent extinction by identifying and managing those threats — 19 altogether — which NOAA put into a prioritized list, beginning with those that are global in scale.

“The worst threats are the hardest to manage,” Smith said. “A very important conclusion is that actions that we take now can help coral survive in the future.”

Before tackling the question of what would actually happen if corals are listed under the ESA, Smith reminded the audience that, at this point, it is nothing more than a proposal.  

According to Smith, four things generally occur once a species is listed — increased protection from federal activities; restrictions on their removal and harm; the development and implementation of a recovery plan, to help the species get off the list; and possible funding provided to state and territorial fish and wildlife agencies to help preserve the species.

Smith stressed while activities that remove or harm corals could be restricted, activities such as surfing, swimming, boating and many methods of fishing do not remove and harm corals, and therefore would not be restricted.

Greg Holzman, a local commercial fisherman, expressed concern that specific fishing methods could be prohibited, such as anchoring and using bottom weights.

“If you don’t necessarily know where these corals exist, how are you going to be able to, you know, (restrict fishing) effectively in which it isn’t just a blanket policy for the entire habitat?” he asked.

Smith said that corals are already “quite well protected by state law” and that physical damage by fishing gear is a “pretty low priority” on NOAA’s list of threats.

Holzman voiced his frustration about not receiving straight answers.

“You put up this kind of vague, ‘No it’s not going to affect your fishing, but we don’t really know,’” he told Smith. “It’s that kind of vagueness that we’ve been dealing with for now three or four years. I just want to know specific ideas on things that could happen. You don’t have to tell me it’s going to happen, but give me at least some idea on what could happen. Can you do that?”

Lisa Van Atta, PIRO’s assistant regional administrator, provided Holzman with some general parameters, saying “if you take (a species), that’s a violation.”

“If you harm a coral by breaking it off or landing gear on it, it could possibly be a take,” she said. “Will you be prosecuted for that? We can’t say on the onset.”

Holzman added that he takes offense to NOAA giving the general public the idea that it won’t affect fishing.

“That’s not true,” he said. “You know, it could.”

Carl Berg, chair of Surfrider Foundation of Kaua‘i and coordinator of the Blue Water Task Force, discussed his concerns with No. 4 on NOAA’s list of threats — the trophic effects of reef fishing.

“That’s a scientific term for targeting different species,” he said. “So, if they’re worried that you’re taking to many of the big (fish) … then they could use this as a possible way of controlling what you’re fishing for.”

Berg also discussed the potential prohibition of recreational activities around coral reefs. He said that large numbers of snorkelers and divers have heavily impacted and almost destroyed reefs in St. Croix.

“I’m really uncomfortable, as much of our other people, with you stating and putting right up there, listing does not prohibit these things, when we can see very well looking at coral reefs around the world that some of these (recreational) activities could really be curtailed or modified in very specific ways,” Berg said.

Chelsey Young of PIRO said in the Florida Keys, where two species of coral are already listed as threatened, recreational activities have not suffered. The biggest change in Florida, she said, has been restrictions on federal activities, such as coastal development and port expansion.

“It’s a very similar situation here,” Young said. “We have two species that are being proposed as threatened in the (main) Hawaiian Islands.”

Terry Lilley, a local biologist and Eyes of the Reef volunteer who first alerted scientists of the recent coral disease outbreak on Kaua‘i, said he has found there to be “virtually no state enforcement on coral issues.”

“All the way to the (Department of Land and Natural Resources), I’ve been reporting a lot of coral problems that never get a response,” he said. “If any of the coral are listed under the ESA, who will be responsible then for enforcement or reporting coral reef problems here in Kaua‘i?”  

If and when the corals are listed, Van Atta said NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement would be responsible.

“The buck stops with NOAA,” she said.

 Don Heacock, an aquatic biologist for the DLNR on Kaua‘i, pointed out that NOAA’s list of the three largest threats to corals — rising ocean temperatures, acidification and disease — are all related to global climate change.

“Flying here on a jet, you probably added to that,” he said. “And listing (corals under the ESA), won’t make a bit of difference.”

The meeting also touched on the fact that both invertebrates — like corals — and plants cannot have distinct population segments under the ESA, which has not been amended since 1978, according to Lisa Croft, PIRO’s deputy regional administrator.

“That’s why these corals have been proposed across their entire range,” Croft said. “We have to look at it globally. We cannot look at it population by population.”

Croft added that the writers of the ESA were likely not thinking about corals.

“They were thinking about grizzly bears and bald eagles,” she said.

Another question posed to NOAA officials Monday was how much can they really impact the major global threats to corals associated with climate change.

Van Atta said that while “we can’t affect climate change immediately,” there are things that can be done to address local threats.

“What (an ESA) listing can do is bring more resources to that listed species,” she said. “What I always like to point out is it’s not NOAA’s Endangered Species Act, it’s everybody’s.”

NOAA’s final decision on the listing of each proposed coral species is due in December. The public has until mid-March to provide additional comments on the proposal, which will be considered before NOAA issues its final decision.

For more information or to submit comments visit www.nmfs.noaa.gov/stories/2012/11/82corals.html.

• Chris D’Angelo, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 241) or lifestyle@thegardenisland.com.

© 2014 Thegardenisland.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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