U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meeting in Wash DC

Roger B Griffis Roger.B.Griffis at noaa.gov
Sun Mar 9 07:30:25 EST 2003

Task force calls for improved water quality
Allison A. Freeman, Greenwire staff writer

              Federal officials and local governments should increase
collaborative efforts to address continuing threats to
coral reefs, particularly
              in reducing wastewater, runoff pollution and overfishing
in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,
concurred top federal and
              state environmental officials last week at a meeting of
U.S. Coral Reef Task Force.

              The CRTF, established by an executive order in 1998 to
"preserve and protect coral reef ecosystems,"
comprises the heads of 11
              federal agencies and the leaders of 10 states, territories
and commonwealths. At its biennial meeting in
Washington, D.C., last
              week, the group passed resolutions calling for upgrading
wastewater treatment systems in areas supporting
coral reef habitat,
              improving water quality through the federal Everglades
Restoration Plan and promoting sustainable trade in
coral reef products.

              "The Task Force resolutions and statements reflect the
intent [to] highlight these issues as really important to
address the coral reef
              crisis," said Roger Griffis, co-chair of the CRTF steering
committee and policy advisor for the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric
              Administration coral reef conservation program.

              "It's clear from the level of representation we have from
around the nation and around the world that coral reefs
and their continued
              protection are high priorities," said Tim Keeney, deputy
assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and

              In 2000, the CRTF adopted the U.S. National Action Plan to
Conserve Coral Reefs, laying out 13 major goals to
help sustain coral
              reef ecosystems. The CRTF has brought together government
and nongovernmental entities to address key
issues, such as the
              nationwide effort to map and characterize all shallow U.S.
reefs. In October 2002 the CRTF identified
land-based pollution,
              overfishing, lack of public awareness, recreational
overuse, coral reef disease and climate change as the major
threats to reefs and
              called for additional efforts to reduce these threats.

              According to a recent Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network
report, coral reefs, which are highly sensitive to
environmental change
              and key indicators of broader problems in the ocean, have
declined by 27 percent worldwide. The report found
that 60 percent of the
              world's coral reefs could be lost by 2030.

              At its meeting, the CRTF encouraged states to work with
local stakeholders and federal partners to develop
local action plans to
              address the key threats. "This is an effort to identify
and implement actions from the ground up ... to help
achieve goals of the U.S.
              National Action Plan," said Griffis.

              The CRTF lacks authority to regulate or appropriate funds.
As such, the resolutions can not be incorporated into
law. However, they
              can serve as blueprints for continued state and federal
restoration efforts. Florida officials, for example, are
hoping the resolutions will
              help leverage increased federal funding for local cleanup

              "A resolution passed at the level of the U.S. Coral Reef
Task Force, the secretary and assistant secretary level,
can be put in front
              of decision-makers, conservation groups, stakeholders,
fishermen and other appropriate people to show that it is
recognized at high
              levels that we need to take action," said Billy Causey,
superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine
Sanctuary. "To take
              action, we need resources. This is a powerful tool to move
to the next step."

              Protection of the reefs is important to Florida not only
because they "provide a very diverse and biologically
important community,"
              Causey said, but also for economic reasons. The park logs
13.3 million visitor days a year, resulting in $1.2
billion in tourism
              revenues. "We cannot afford to lose this reef," Causey

              An official with the U.S. EPA said the agency would not
respond to the resolutions, which it supported, until the
CRTF releases the
              final versions in coming weeks. But the official said the
resolutions would likely not lead to new rulemaking, but
rather encourage the
              agency to assist and coordinate with other groups and
local officials.

              But Dan Meyer, general counsel for Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility, said the CRTF is not
taking enough action
              to address declining coral reefs. He said the CRTF should
"bash heads" and address reef harming practices
executed by agencies
              within the group, citing the Army Corps of Engineers in
particular. Meyer said the Corps' oversight of beach
renourishment -- placing
              sand on the shore of eroding beaches -- often allows
low-cost, uncareful methods that stir up sand in the water
and choke the reef.
              The Corps also harms the reef with dredging permits and by
allowing fiber optic cable to cross reef zones
without environmental
              review, Meyer said.

              Meyer said the agencies on the CRTF should cooperate to
more staunchly protect the reefs, consulting with one
another and using
              existing laws, like the Endangered Species Act, the Clean
Water Act and the National Environmental Policy
Act, to tighten their
              regulatory authority.

              "Without solving the central oversight problem, the Coral
Reef Task Force is going to be like an undertaker for
the reefs. It will
              document their burial and demise but won't have been a
doctor to step in and see the patient before it died,"
Meyer said. "Because
              the reefs are not out in the public's view, we risk not
knowing that we missed the boat on this until the reefs are

              Kacky Andrews, Director of Coastal and Aquatic Managed
Areas at the Florida Department of Environmental
Protection, said the
              resolutions will not spur the state to write more coral
reef regulations, but said she hopes they will encourage
Congress to direct
              more funding to Florida, especially for the state's
wastewater treatment plan.

              "The federal government has done a lot for the Florida
Keys National Marine Sanctuary, but there is a lot of
need," she said.
              Andrews noted that in the Florida Keys, nutrient-laden
wastewater from some 25,000 septic tanks, 6,500
cesspits and 900
              shallow-injection wells compromises water quality in the
nearshore coral reef system.

              CRTF's Everglades restoration resolution asked state
regulators to consider how coral reefs will be affected by
water flowing through
              the Everglades and into the Florida Bay. As the state
develops and implements its 20-year plan to restore
historic flows to the
              Everglades, the reefs will almost certainly benefit,
Andrews said.

              Other resolutions called for programs to address
wastewater treatment systems in the Virgin Islands, where the
current system
              inadequately accommodates a growing population, and in
Puerto Rico, where more than 30 percent of homes
are not connected to a
              wastewater treatment system.

              The resolution dealing with trade urges the United States
to promote the sustainable trade of coral reef species
under international
              negotiations. The U.S. consumes more than 80 percent of
coral reef products traded worldwide, NOAA's
Griffis said. The Marine
              Aquarium Council, a coral reef products stakeholder
coalition, is working to develop a voluntary certification
program for sustainable,
              environmentally sound standards for trade of reef

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