LIHUE — Federal authorities released a list of 20 corals they now classify as threatened.
However, none are in Hawaii, meaning the blue rice coral — one of three species being impacted by an outbreak of black band coral disease on Kauai’s North Shore — will not receive federal protection.
Whether that’s good or bad news is up for debate.
“People have argued for both,” said Dr. Greta Aeby, a coral expert with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii.
Aeby, who has been involved in the ongoing study of the Kauai coral disease, said it’s not a black and white issue; that there are positives and negatives that come with federally listing a species.
One potential drawback, some say, is that it can make things more difficult for those studying a species to do their job.
Nevertheless, on Wednesday, after two years of assessment, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration increased the number of protected coral species from two to 22. Two species, elkhorn and staghorn, were already listed as threatened in 2006.
The 20 additional species have all been listed as threatened, none as endangered, NOAA said. The Endangered Species Act defines threatened as a species “which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”
Of the four Hawaiian corals proposed for listing under the ESA in November 2012, zero made the final cut.
NOAA officials said during a media conference that after reviewing the subject, they concluded none of the species present in Hawaii are currently at risk of extinction.
The agency said it did not create any new rules yet that would prevent coral from being harvested or damaged.
In other words, the threatened status does not come with an immediate prohibition of take, according to Mike Tosatto, regional administrator at NOAA’s Pacific Islands Regional Office.
Had the blue rice coral been listed, Don Heacock said it may have eventually precluded the Kauai Management Response Team from moving forward with its disease study.
Heacock, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said simply listing corals won’t do them any good.
“You could argue that every coral in the world is threatened with global climate change,” he said. “We’re burning fossil fuels as fast as we can in the United States … I just don’t see that (listing corals is) going to really do anything.”
Coral ecosystems worldwide are facing a number of threats related to climate change, including rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification and disease, as well as overfishing and poor land-use practices, NOAA said.
Those threats are what drove the agency to list additional species.
“Coral reefs are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on Earth, providing habitat for many marine species,” Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said in a release. “Protecting and conserving these biologically rich ecosystems is essential, and the Endangered Species Act gives us the tools to conserve and recover those corals most in need of protection.”
Initially, NOAA had proposed listing 66 species — 12 as endangered and 54 as threatened. One of them was Montipora flabellata, the blue rice coral, which was lumped together into a single species with two other Montiporas — Montipora dilitata and Montipora turgescens.
In submitted public comments, several people reportedly objected to combining the three together; however, NOAA said it did not receive any new or supplemental information that contradicted a single genetics study completed in 2010.
Whether the blue rice coral would have fared differently had it been looked at separately is hard to say.
“We never looked at the status of the blue rice coral all by itself, so we don’t know what the outcome would have been,” Lance Smith of the National Marine Fisheries Service said during Wednesday’s media conference.
Separately, its distribution is much smaller than when lumped with the other species. The blue rice coral is endemic to Hawaii and found on all the Hawaiian Islands. If combined, the whole entity ranges from the Red Sea and east Africa to Hawaii and French Polynesia, according to NOAA’s final report.
Of the 20 species listed Wednesday, 15 are found in the Indo-Pacific, near Guam and American Samoa. Five are found off the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts of Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
“Forty Indo-Pacific coral species’ determinations changed from threatened in the proposed rule to not warranted in the final rule,” states the 1,104-page document.
Since its proposed rule in 2012, many new scientific papers on climate change an coral habitat, distribution and abundance have been published, which NOAA says it was able to incorporate into its final decision.
Tosatto said NOAA was able to move away from “the best available information” and toward a greater amount of species-specific information.
In its report, NOAA said it determined there was not a need to list the blue rice coral and its partners because the species is distributed over a large area, reducing exposure to any given threat event that does not occur uniformly throughout its range, and its abundance is “at least tens of millions of colonies.”
“It is possible that this species’ extinction risk may increase in the future if global threats continue and increase in severity and the species exposure to threats increases throughout its range,” NOAA wrote.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or email@example.com.