Acropora spp., endangered ?

Precht,Bill BPrecht at
Wed Mar 3 11:46:31 EST 1999

Dear list:

For what its worth, just a few comments (in a question - answer format)
about the spirited Acropora debate.

Q.- Should Acropora spp. be considered for listing? 

A. - YES

Q. - What's the evidence for this?

A.- In most US waters (Caribbean & western Atlantic), Acropora populations
have been drastically reduced by a number of factors (disease, storms,
bleaching, predation, etc...) over the course of the last two decades.  This
is especially pronounced for Acropora cervicornis.

Q. - Is this reduction just part of natural boom-bust cycles in the local
populations.  Walt Japp makes some good points about the volatility of
Acropora populations in Florida.

A. - Yes, Acropora populations are very volatile.  However, the recent
declines are not just confined to local populations within individual reefs
or reef areas, but have impacted essentially all Acropora populations
throughout the region.  This includes reef areas far from population sources
and major anthropogenic impacts.  Belize, Bonaire, Jamaica, the Bahamas,
Florida, etc... have all shown similar declines over roughly the same period
of time.  Florida reefs have been especially impacted.  In addition, recent
geologic evidence strongly points to the fact that a "regional" decline in
acroporid populations is without historical precedence in the Quaternary.

Q. - Okay, so some Acropora populations have diminished, but there are still
some pretty good stands of Acropora spp. here and there.  Why should we list
a species that is still locally abundant in some areas?

A. - Your right, there are some pretty good stands of Acropora here and
there, especially A. palmata.  The main point being "here and there".
Unfortunately, there aren't that many "here and there's" anymore.  As
compared to 20-30 years ago even these large stands are greatly reduced in
size and number. This is based on both solid data and anecdotal evidence.
In addition, even in these large stands, very few are "healthy"; that is
they show a high incidence of partial mortality.  For instance, one of the
most beautiful and most luxuriant stands of A. palmata (just two years ago)
was off Goulding Cay (southwest tip of New Providence Island, Bahamas).
Many of these corals (over 50%) have died within the last year due to the
1998 bleaching event, white-band disease epizootics, and predation by mobile
fauna.  Many of these corals are now standing dead in-situ.   This scene is
being played over and over again throughout the region.  It should be noted
that this same reef at Goulding Cay was renowned for its prolific stands and
thickets of A. cervicornis. This reef was used as a backdrop for numerous
u/w scenes in films, including some James Bonds flicks.  Stuart Cove the
local dive operator there told me that ~ 99% of this staghorn vanished in
the early to mid-1980's. Now it seems as though the A. palmata is imperiled
there as well. 

Q. - Well you've convinced me that the acroporids are at risk (maybe).  How
would implementing the E & T Species Act help here?  Aren't the scleractinia
are already protected in US waters by a host of various regulations and

A. - The present regulations protect corals from harvest and/or destruction
in place (i.e. ship-groundings, anchor damage, etc...)  Although illegal
coral collection by reef poachers is still common and problematic, the E & T
Act goes one step further in that it helps protect the habitat in which that
species lives.  This is done by designating "critical habitat"  for a
particular E & T species.  Also, additional layers of legal protection are
common with E & T species.  For instance,  The Bald Eagle is protected by
the Migratory Bird Act, as well as the E & T Act, plus individual State
Statutes.  Having an additional layer of protection and  the legal
ramifications that go with it (violation of the E & T Act is very serious
business) will not just help the acroporids but all corals living in
association with them.

Q. - It may be determined that only local populations of acroporids are at
risk.  If so, why place the whole lot on the list?

A. -  If this is determined to be the case (based on population data), then
there are numerous options available.  This includes the listing of a
species as "a species of special concern" (i.e. the Burrowing Owl in
Florida).  Another option, would be (as Jamie Bechtel noted) to list only a
local population as E or T.  For instance "All Acropora spp. in the waters
of Florida" or "All A. cervicornis in US Territorial waters"  or "All
acroporid species in US waters with exception of A. palmata in Florida" and
so on.   The E & T Species Act even protects species because of their
similarity with other like species.  For example, the Florida alligator is
protected because of its similarity with the American Crocodile, an
endangered species.

Q. - Will placing the Acropora spp. on the list make getting scientific
permits for collecting coral specimens more difficult.

A. - It should not affect those who have just reasons for sampling (permits
are already required for work/research in the Florida Keys), and it will
certainly deter the unnecessary collection and sampling of these corals.  

Well, this is my spin on some of the stuff that has been going around for
the last couple of weeks.  Hope this helps.

By the by, Rich Aronson and I recently completed a ms. on the history &
volitility of the Acropora spp. as well as on their recent, regional demise.
I would be more than happy to furnish copies of this in-press ms. to any
that request it.

"Men with the muckrake are often indispensable to the well-being of society,
but only if they know when to stop raking the muck."   Theodore Roosevelt

William F. Precht
Natural Resources Manager
LAW Engineering & Environmental Services, Inc.
5845 NW 158th Street
Miami Lakes, FL  33014
ph (305) 826-5588 x206
fax (305) 826-1799

> -----Original Message-----
> From:	Jamie D. Bechtel [SMTP:warrior at]
> Sent:	Sunday, February 28, 1999 6:06 AM
> To:	coral-list at; lesk at
> Subject:	Acropora spp., endangered -legal background
> hello all - i have been following the debate with some interest and
> thought
> some background information may be helpful.  there is an excellent article
> discussing the role of science in the listing of endangered species.
> Bogert, Laurence Michael "That's my story and i'm sticking to it: is the
> best available science any available science under the endangered species
> act." 31 Idaho Law Review 85 (1994). 
> despite some recent flexibility mechanisms built into the ESA, it remains
> a
> strong legislative tool. the endangered species act (ESA) is unique in
> terms of environmental legislation in that it contains a flat,
> substanative
> prohibition. weighing heavily in favor of the application of the
> endangered
> species act is the fact that, beyond a shadow of doubt, congress intended
> to grant high priority status to endangered species.  consequently, the
> remains a strong legislative tool and is upheld uniformily and
> consistently
> in district courts.
> Sec. 7 of the ESA supplies much of the force of the ESA in  "insur[ing]
> that actions authorized, funded, or carried out by [federal deptarments
> and
> agencies] do not jeapardize the continued existence of such endangered
> species and threatended species or result in the destruction or
> modification of habitat of such species which is determined by the
> Secretary, after consultation as appropriate with the affected States, to
> be critical".
> in short, if a project will cause harm to an endangered species, that
> project can likely be brought to a relatively quick halt. 
> 1n 1995, sec 9 (regarding illegal taking species w/i the US and the
> territorial sea) of the ESA won its day in court.  the supreme court
> allowed the definition of "harm" to include "significant habitat
> modification or degradation where it actually kills or injures wildlife by
> significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including breeding,
> feeding, or sheltering (babbit v. Sweet Home Chapter of Communities for a
> Great Oregon, S. Ct. US 1995)
> it should be noted that, while application of the ESA is unlikely (not
> impossible) to improve current water quality and habitat conditions, it
> could go along way in preventing further decline(although some interesting
> battles are coming up with regards to language in the esa to promote
> conservation of species). the law was not designed to determine protective
> measures for different reproductive behaviors. it is likely that we do not
> need to consider recruitment fitness.  (criteria listed below)
> it should also be noted that in determining whether a population is
> threatened, it need not be threatened globally, but throughout a portion
> of
> its range.  many examples exist, such as the protection of the bald eagle
> in US domestic populations despite a thriving population in Alaska.
> distinct population segments can be protected. this arguement is likely to
> be stronger when additional populations occur outside US states and
> territories but are threatened within the US. 
> the esa also allows critical habitat to be protected - slightly more
> complicated to achieve but based on an endangered species listing. 
> the application of esa relies solely on the "best scientific and
> commercial
> data available." the act allows that listing of a species as endangered or
> threatend follows certain criteria: if the species experiences 1. present
> or threatened destruction or modification of its habitat or range. 2.
> overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or education
> purposes 3. disease/predation 4. inadequacy of existing regulatory
> mechanism or other natural or manmade factors affect its continued
> existence
> listing of an organmism that is not truly endangered can be extremely
> dangerous in providing fuel for politicians and industry trying to bring
> an
> end to the act. 
> final thoughts, the legal arena is constantly changing and many questions
> regarding application of the ESA remain untested until they appear in
> court.  
> one thought permeating the legal environment is the idea that scientist
> don't agree on any thing and data is untrustworthy. unfortunately, a few
> bad apples etc... however, as a scientist interacting in the legal
> community, i find it disheartening to have to constantly defend the
> workings of the scientific community. any suggestions on how to begin
> dispelling the myth and providing explanation?
> hope this information is helpful -
> cheers,
> jamie
> __________________________________________________________________________
> __
> ________
> Jamie D. Bechtel					Jamie D. Bechtel
> Boston University					Boston College
> School of Law
> Graduate School of Biology				885 Centre Street
> 5 Cummington Street					Newton, MA 02159
> Boston, MA 02215

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