[Coral-List] Re: Acropora ESA Debate

Jim Hendee Jim.Hendee at noaa.gov
Mon Nov 29 15:22:22 EST 2004

I'm afraid Brent Plater has had trouble posting this message concerning the Acr
opora ESA Debate:

-----Original Message-----
From: Brent Plater [[1]mailto:bplater at biologicaldiversity.org]
Sent: Monday, November 29, 2004 7:58 AM
To: '[2]coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov'
Subject: RE: Acropora ESA Debate

Hello everyone,

I want to accept the invitation to discuss the rationale for protecting
Acropora palmata, A. prolifera, and A. cervicornis under the United States'
Endangered Species Act, and to apologize for the length of this message.  As
the petitioner for this action, I found that I had a lot to say....

For those of you unfamiliar with the process, the Endangered Species Act
allows the interested public to submit "petitions" to protect species from
extinction, and requires the federal government to respond to these
"petitions" with substantive decisions to protect imperiled species within a
mandatory timeframe.  The word "petition" is in quotation marks because the
document is not a collection of signatures; it is a formal, written summary
of the best scientific information about an imperiled species and a formal,
legal request to protect that species.  In response, the government must
base its decision solely on the best available science; that is, the
government's response to the petition must be based solely on the biological
status of the species concerned.  If you haven't already, I invite you to
review the petition.  It is available here:
[3]http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/species/coral/petition.pdf.  A
final decision to protect (or not) these species is required in March of

Much of the concerns raised by Shinn 2004 and others in response to the
petition have to do with the efficacy of the Endangered Species Act and a
perception that protecting the species will hinder research, or even worse,
divert us away from more pressing goals.  There is also a hint, here and
there, that these corals do not warrant protection at all because their
status is not quite dire enough.  I'd like to address these issues in turn.

The Endangered Species Act is perhaps the world's most powerful conservation
law.  It is a safety net for fish, wildlife, and plants that are on the
brink of extinction, protecting both imperiled species and the species'
critical habitats.  As a tool for preventing extinction, it has been very
successful; recent studies (Scott et al. in press) have indicated that
extinctions in the United States have been reduced by an order of magnitude
thanks to the Endangered Species Act.  In part this is because the
Endangered Species Act is a cautious statute, requiring managers to err on
the side of protection when faced with scientific uncertainty.  It is also
because the Endangered Species Act requires the government to not only
assess the environmental consequences of its actions, but also implement
alternatives that protect species and the habitats upon which they depend.
No other local, state, or federal law is nearly as strong.

However, its success in recovering species has been less clear, in part
because of political attempts to eliminate the recovery goal from the Act
and in part because there simply has not been enough time (the Act is only
30 years old) for realistic recovery objectives to be met.  For these
reasons, no one can say for sure that Endangered Species Act protections
will cause these coral species to recover to historic levels, or even stop
their demise.  The Act does not come with a money back guarantee, as it

But there are many tangible protections that Endangered Species Act
protection can provide for these corals, protections that will allow
managers to tackle otherwise insurmountable threats and ultimately increase
the long-term outlook for coral recovery in the Caribbean.  First,
Endangered Species Act protection will require the federal government to
create a comprehensive recovery plan.  In this case, because many threats
(in particular coral disease) are described but not well understood, the
recovery plan will likely serve in part as a strategic and comprehensive
blueprint for research into coral diseases and their cures.  Research
projects that are consistent with this plan will find additional funding and
support (indeed, the most difficult thing to fund under the Endangered
Species Act is the initial protection of species; the recovery budget far
exceeds the listing budget).   Second, the Endangered Species Act will
require the U.S. government to identify and protect critical coral habitats.
For the Caribbean Acroporids, the most likely areas to be protected as
critical habitat will be those areas that still have healthy stands of coral
but face severe threats (i.e., threat of a disease outbreak or a string of
hurricanes).  These areas will serve as a recovery source for these
populations and also provide scientists with enough time to investigate why
these patches have survived and see if recovery lessons can be learned.
Finally, the listing will require greenhouse gas emitting industries to
consider the impacts of their emissions on corals, in consultation with
coral experts, before they can receive permits to pollute.  This may well be
the only regulatory tool to try and cope with and manage global warming,
particularly when the executive branch refuses to acknowledge anthropogenic
causes of global climate change.

These protections will not come without some additional process.  It is true
that protecting species under the Endangered Species Act will result in
additional paperwork and permitting before research can be conducted on
these corals.  However, I have worked to protect many species across the
United States under this law, and I have not seen a legitimate research
project denied due to the Endangered Species Act.  Indeed, the Endangered
Species Act has actually increased research in most every instance that a
species has been protected.  Shinn has explained that he has, however, had
problems receiving permits to conduct research in "paper parks."  But these
problems were not caused by the Endangered Species Act and were not even
caused by the agency that implements this law.  In fact, the Endangered
Species Act allows the government to completely exempt scientific research
from the Endangered Species Act's protective provisions.  I doubt that I
would support such a sweeping exemption here, but I have pledged to Shinn
and others that we will investigate and work to remedy such issues, if they
ever arise.

The Caribbean Acroporids have declined by 80-98% in most every country where
systematic surveys have been conducted.  Perhaps even more alarming, these
declines have occurred over relatively short time periods.  Indeed, most
researchers on this list probably remember when the Caribbean coral
landscape looked vastly different then it does today.  Under the Endangered
Species Act, a species must be protected if it is endangered or threatened
in all or in a "significant portion of its range."  The Act is written this
way to insure that managers take action to protect species before it is too
late.  The data collected thus far indicate that the Caribbean Acroporids,
at the very least, are threatened or endangered in a "significant portion"
of their historic range.  And there is probably no example where the
consequences of waiting to act, and being wrong, could be more detrimental
to human populations.  If we are wrong, which I doubt we are, I'm glad that
we are erring on the side of caution, because once these corals go extinct,
the benefits they provide to us will be lost forever.  I suspect the plan
for the outfall pipe, however, will perpetually live to fight another day!

If you have any other questions or concerns, feel free to contact me at any
time, I look forward to hearing from you.


Brent Plater
Staff Attorney
Center for Biological Diversity
San Francisco Bay Area Office
1095 Market St., Suite 511
San Francisco, CA 94103
Phone: 415-436-9682 x 301
Fax: 415-436-9683
[4]bplater at biologicaldiversity.org

Scott, J. M., D. Goble, L. K. Svancara, and A. Pidgorna. 2005. The
Endangered Species Act: By the Numbers, in J. M. Scott and D. Goble (eds.),
The Endangered Species Act at 30, Island Press.

Shinn EA (2004) The mixed value of environmental regulations: do acroporid
corals deserve endangered species status? Marine Pollution Bulletin 49
(7-8): 531-533


   1. mailto:bplater at biologicaldiversity.org
   2. mailto:coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
   3. http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/species/coral/petition.pdf
   4. mailto:bplater at biologicaldiversity.org
   5. http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/

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