Two U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists were presented with a U.S. Coral Reef Task Force Award in recognition of their contributions as members of the Atlantic Acropora Biological Review Team, which assessed the status of two ecologically important coral species. The award recipients were commended by the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force in Washington, D.C., in May 2006:
"For excellent collaborative research and assessment of the status of Caribbean Acroporids for potential listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This status assessment allowed NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] to fulfill its regulatory requirements in a timely fashion, and has proven invaluable in advancing scientific understanding of and management planning for these key coral species."
Among the eight Biological Review Team experts were Bob Halley of the USGS Florida Integrated Science Center office in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Caroline Rogers of the USGS Caribbean Field Station in Virgin Islands National Park on St. John. The Biological Review Team included coral biologists and ecologists, climate specialists, resource managers, and water-quality and coral-disease experts. The team was assembled to review the status of the staghorn coral Acropora cervicornis and the elkhorn coral Acropora palmata.
In 2003, a petition was received by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to list the two coral species as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. (The petition also named Acropora prolifera, which was then considered a third species but is now considered a hybrid between the other two.) In response, NOAA convened the expert-committee status-review team to evaluate the status of the corals.
The Biological Review Team gathered for meetings over 6 months in Miami and St. Petersburg before they completed their report in spring 2005.
According to Halley, the corals are declining because of a combination of natural and anthropogenic stress factors. The Biological Review Team's report ranks disease as the main stressor, closely followed by temperature. (USGS scientists are currently conducting research on the effects of disease on elkhorn corals in the Virgin Islands.) Moderate stressors include sedimentation and the breakage of these branching corals by humans. African dust, sea-level rise, and nutrient stressors were ranked as lower threats to the corals. Not enough information was available for the team to evaluate the threats from contaminants and the loss of genetic diversity.
"Based on the information we compiled, a decision was made to list these corals not as endangered but as threatened, and that decision was announced [in May]," said Halley. "To be classified as 'endangered,' a species must be in imminent danger of becoming extinct. Threatened species are not in imminent danger of becoming extinct, but we should watch them closely for the next few years to see whether the populations continue to decline."
These acroporid corals are the first corals to be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Sustained observation of the corals by NOAA is now necessary to monitor their future health and abundance. Conservation practices are likely to be implemented shortlythis implementation will involve raising public awareness, adapting conservation policies, and putting them into practice.
The U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, initiated by the Clinton administration in 1998 under Presidential Executive Order 13089, has been continued by the current administration to preserve and protect coral ecosystems. The U.S. Coral Reef Task Force includes 12 Federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior and the USGS.
"…the [task force] decided we did such a good job, that all the members of the review team were given an award," said Halley.
To learn more about the task force and the recent awards, visit the Coral Reef Task Force and read the NOAA news story. For additional information, including a link to the Biological Review Team's report "Atlantic Acropora Status Review," visit URL http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/protres.htm.
in this issue:
USGS Scientists Receive Coral Reef Task Force Award