[Coral-List] endangered species petition for 82 corals

Douglas Fenner dfenner at blueskynet.as
Sat Apr 3 03:29:27 EDT 2010

     I'd like to try to clarify a few things about the petition to list 82 species as endangered.  This may get a bit long, so if you're not interested don't read it.
     First, much of the petition was based on a paper published in Science magazine by a group of scientists assembled and led by Dr. Kent Carpenter to assess the conservation status of all the reef corals of the world, using the IUCN Red List criteria.  Separate groups were assembled for the Caribbean/eastern Pacific fauna, and the Indo-Pacific fauna.  I was part of the group evaluating the I-P species.  We tried hard to gather together all the information we could, to do this.  Kent is a prof. at Old Dominion Univ. and with IUCN, and after the Science paper came out, the information was put on the IUCN Red List website.  The CBD used material that was from the online material that went with the Science article, and/or from the IUCN web site as a source of information for their petition, which was their choice.  That was only part of the petition.
     So the original source of the information was the work of the group of scientists that led to the Science paper, which has citations to the original sources of the information it was based on and describes the process.
     As with every scientific endeavor, this was an attempt to move the state of knowledge ahead, but like everything else it is not perfect and not final truth.  Rather, in this case it is the first time that there was enough shreds of evidence to put together a very first evaluation of coral species for endangered species status.  Everyone should know that much of the information we would have liked to have based it on does not yet exist.  Hopefully more and more will in the future, and this will be revised and improved greatly in the coming decades.  But a fairly large group of scientists tried their best to base it on the best available scientific information, however nothing is perfect and we have a long way to go.
     A second point is that the IUCN Red List and the U.S. Endangered Species Act listings are two completely different things.  IUCN is an international NGO I believe, while the U.S. Endangered Species Act is a U.S. government law.  The IUCN Red List is international, it covers the whole world.  It is only advisory, it has no enforcement mechanism whatsoever.  Anyone can use it or ignore it as they wish.  The US Endangered Species Act is a law that governs the actions of the US government, and it has legal teeth, there can be court action and penalties assessed for violations of the act.  The act specifies how the decision to list as endangered must be made, and the government officials that are working on that must follow the law.  The government can be sued for not following this law.
     An important point is since these two are very different, the criteria they use to determine whether something is endangered are quite different.  The IUCN Red List criteria were devised and revised by scientists who are experts in biological extinction, and are designed to work as well as possible for any species of any kind anywhere, and make it possible to use as many different kinds of data as possible.  So there is a series of criteria based on the decline of the population of a species, other criteria based on the size of the species range, others based on the number of individuals in the species.  If you have one type of data but not another, you can use the criteria for the type of data you have.  The US Endangered Species Act is far more vague, saying something like "endangered in all or a significant part of its range" and "a reasonable person would conclude it is endangered."   (Keep in mind I'm no expert on the Act.)  Anyhow, net effect is that IUCN criteria could indicate a species is endangered, and the US Endangered Species Act not list it as endangered, or vice versa.  But an IUCN Red List finding of endangered could be one piece of evidence that could be looked at for considering listing under the US Endangered Species Act.  The petition clearly did cite the IUCN Red List status of these species as evidence.  I encourage you to go onto the IUCN web site and look at the Red List Criteria.
     One important question which I thank Vassil Zlatarski for bringing up is the question of whether the CBD petition picked the right species (Vassil was particularly concerned with the West Atlantic species I believe.)  The Act specifies that anyone can petition (we should check on whether they need to be a US citizen or resident) for any species to be considered.  I don't know why Congress chose this process, but certainly no government agency has the resources to consider all species (around 3 million species of organisms have been described), and the writers of the act chose to put the power to chose which to petition in the hands of the people not the government.  But the government gets to decide based on the evidence in the petition and on hand in their files, whether a full review is warrented.  Then anyone and everyone (from any country) can provide info during the info gathering period.  This can be economic info about the consequences as well as scientific info on the species.
     CBD clearly depended on the results of the Science paper that the group of scientists produced, based on the IUCN Red List Criteria and all the info that was gathered.  CBD has the right to choose any species they want, and any evidence they want.  But then so do you- you can choose any species you want and write a petition today if you so choose.  Pick the common chicken or dog or anything else you like.  No doubt CBD is a professional in this arena, and knows that the species in a petition are likely to be accepted for full review only if the petition contains good evidence.  They chose evidence from the Science paper and IUCN as part of their evidence.  That's their choice.  They don't have to be coral experts to make that choice, anyone can make that choice or any other at any time.
      If you don't like which species were chosen for the CBD petition, there is a lot you can do about it.  First, you can submit to NMFS (the government body that reviews petitions of marine species) evidence to show that the species petitioned are not in fact endangered as specified in the act.  If you have any information of that sort, I urge you to submit it.  Unlike Eugene, I really do believe this has not been decided, and it will be decided based on the evidence accumulated.  It may be that in previous rulings, people who didn't like the outcome then used as an excuse that they say it was decided long before any information was accepted from anyone else (whether it was or not), and in some venues in some countries including the US that may have happened, I don't know.  But I really don't think that will happen here.  I know a few of the people involved, and they are sincere, honest, hard working people who have had an enormous task thrust upon them.
    The second thing you can do is that if you think there were species that are more endangered that were left out of the petition, then you can write your own petition.  You may even be able to find an NGO like CBD to do that for you, based on your scientific information and expert opininon.  Heck, my bet is that they don't know an Acropora cophodactyla from a Porites pukoensis, and if you know of a species that is endangered but isn't on their list, I bet they would love to know.  Fact is, you or anyone else can petition for whatever you want.  Keep in mind that the better the info supporting it, the farther the petition will likely get with NMFS.  So I encourage you to do that.  But I also suggest that maybe we should all see how this first petition for 82 species goes and what the outcome is.  We are all likely to learn a lot, and any petition later on will be based on a better understanding and more likely to succeed.  Further, the people in NMFS tasked with this are going to be very busy indeed in the coming year trying to evaluate this petition, which is by far the largest number of species ever petitioned for endangered species in the US, I believe.  Plus, a number of aspects of the petition are novel, and will be harder to evaluate, plus it may have huge implications for activities that produce greenhouse gases.  They have a very enormous job ahead of them, and no matter what the result, it will be controversial.  They are in the hot seat and I don't envy them one bit for that. 
    Eugene makes a point about unintended consequences.  That's a good thing to be reminded of, thanks Gene.  Indeed there are likely to be some.  I have to live with the unintended consequence of CITES that it makes it harder to do coral taxonomy, even if the taxonomy is in support of conserving reefs, because it is harder to move even small amounts of corals between countries for scientific study (not commercial profit).  But CITES is very necessary to control trade in endangered species, and I support it.
   There will surely be some unintended consequences if any of these species are declared endangered.  That probably happens with a lot of other species that have been listed, I don't know.  But, consider for a minute that nearly everything that humans do has unintended consequences.  Almost every invention does.  How many unintended consequences are there of the automobile or the discovery of coal and oil?  Did anyone anticipate that they might (might) cause the death of most of the world's coral???  Surely not.  I'd argue that most of the species listed as endangered species got that way as unintended consequences of human action, whether it be the hunting of passenger pigeons or clearing of land for farming, or a myriad of other things.  If anybody knows of a better way to stop species from going extinct, let's hear it.  The act does specify that NMFS must consider economic consequences of listing a species, so that if there are grave economic consequences the species doesn't have to be listed.  I don't know that it specifies how big the economic losses have to be, it may not.  It also specifies that whether existing protections are sufficient to protect the species must be considered.  If a species is already well protected, then it may not be listed under the act as endangered, even if it is endangered.
      Sorry to go on so long.
      Douglas Fenner

The Science paper is:
Carpenter, K. E., Abrar M., Aeby G., Aronson R., Bruckner A., Delbeek C., DeVantier L., Edgar G., Edwards A., Fenner, D. and 29 others.  2008.  One third of reef building corals face elevated extinction risk from climate change and local impacts.  Science 321: 560-563.

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