[Coral-List] UPDATE: ESA Threatened Corals (Sarah Heberling)

Gene Shinn eshinn at marine.usf.edu
Tue Mar 18 12:21:14 EDT 2008

      The explanation of critical-habitat designation in the coral 
list by Jennifer Moore and Sarah Heberling 
(http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/pdf/080303_Coral_CH_Presentation.pdf ) 
is certainly much easier to read than the version previously 
published in the Federal Register. Well Done! Everyone should read it 
and make comments
      I have a few lingering questions that have a historical 
background. How did it happen that NOAA's National Marine Fisheries 
is in charge of protecting a coral species, especially within NOAA's 
National Marine Sanctuaries, and for that matter in the Dry Tortugas 
National Park? NOAA is under the Dept. of Commerce and National Parks 
are under the Dept. of Interior. These are two vastly different 
branches of government. Does not the National Marine Sanctuary 
already protect corals? Do they not write tickets for violations? To 
an ordinary citizen today, this dual-agency control could smack of 
government out of control.
      After reading this well-written piece, I concluded that the 
critical central element has to do with PCE, i.e., "Primary 
Constituent Elements." Does that sound more legal than biological to 
anyone beside me? Reading this document once again made me wish some 
historical geology had gone into the determination of PCEs. I well 
remember being told that there was no place for geology on the team 
that prepared the original Acropora document so I sat on the 
sidelines and watched. Some historical geology could have 
strengthened the critical-habitat rulings.  For example, on page 6 it 
says, "We identified four specific areas that contain the PCE. These 
areas comprise all waters in the depths of 30 m and shallower to the 
MHW or COLREG line off: 1) Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and 
Monroe Counties, including the Marquesas Keys and the Dry Tortugas, 
Florida" (emphasis is mine). I will not comment on the other three 
areas that are outside the U.S. mainland. What caught my attention 
was the inclusion of the Marquesas Keys. I am not aware of any 
Acropora at or in the vicinity of the Marquesas Keys.
1) To the north is Ellis Rock, part of a trend of reefs extending 
westward to New Ground Shoal. There is no Acropora along this reef 
trend, and our core drilling showed there never has been. Our cores 
showed these reefs (25 ft thick) were built entirely by massive 
corals. Clearly, they do not possess and never did possess PCE.
2) The shifting sand of The Quicksands to the west of the Marquesas 
lacks corals entirely (plus, much of the area is used for bombing 
3) Boca Grande Channel to the east is hardbottom with a few migrating 
sand waves. Mainly gorgonians and sponges populate the channel. No 
Acropora there.
4) The area immediately to the south out to a depth of 15 ft is bare 
Pleistocene oolite with occasional patches of massive head corals. We 
also cored there. No signs of Acropora there either.
      Several miles farther offshore beyond the turbid waters of Hawk 
Channel is Cosgrove Shoal. That reef lacks Acropora, although there 
may have been some in the geological past. There certainly is no 
Acropora in the turbid stretch of water between the Marquesas and 
Cosgrove Shoal.
      The Marquesas proper, under the jurisdiction of the Fish and 
Wildlife Service (Dept. of Interior), consists of a ring of 
Halimeda-sand islands with a 3-mile-wide central lagoon. The lagoon 
contains 17 ft of muddy carbonate sediment populated by marine 
grasses and Halimeda. The sediment rests in a trough in the 
Pleistocene oolite. The grass bed is often exposed during spring low 
tides. No coral there. So, why did the Marquesas receive this 
designation? Had some pre-existing geology been considered, this area 
might not have become a critical habitat. Assuming science was the 
sole motive for designation.
       The Dry Tortugas (protected by the National Park Service) has 
questionable PCE. At least that is what the geological history 
indicates. The major reef (Southeast Reef) is 55 ft thick at its 
shallowest part. This is the thickest buildup of Holocene coral 
anywhere in Florida. We found only one living elkhorn (Acropora 
palmata) when we drilled there in 1976. We found the same thickness 
within and adjacent to Ft. Jefferson when we drilled in 2005. These 
cores showed that massive head corals had built the reef.
     There was staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) growing there in 1976, 
but it was killed by a cold snap in the winter of 1977. That was the 
year it snowed in Miami. That cold front apparently killed our 
elkhorn transplants that were put there in 1976. The transplanting 
was a simple attempt to determine why there was so little growing 
there naturally.
      When Agassiz mapped the Tortugas in 1881, there was more 
Acropora but it was killed in the famous black-water event of 1879. 
This was the historic red tide that decimated the fishing industry 
along the entire west coast of Florida. What was growing there when 
Agassiz mapped the area had grown since the die-off in 1879. Acropora 
at Dry Tortugas comes and goes, most likely because of sporadic 
incursions of cold water from the Gulf of Mexico during winter 
months. Recent work at Tortugas has documented areas of Acropora 
growth today.
     Until recent years, there was an unusually lush thicket of 
Acropora prolifera (not included in the threatened listing) growing 
in a break at the northern end of Southeast Reef not far from the 
fort. Today this coral is essentially dead. I have watched and 
photographed its demise since 1997. Presumably this species of 
Acropora has the same PCE requirements as the listed ones. One can 
conclude it is an area of marginal PCE for Acropora.
      The Dry Tortugas is isolated by 70 miles of water from the 
Florida Keys and is more protected from human influences than any 
area in Florida. Cold-water events, hurricanes, and red tides affect 
the area, but today diseases are causing widespread death. 
Historically, during the 6,000 years that reef corals have been 
growing in Florida, there have been many die-offs documented by 
coring and age dating. Those die-offs were not caused by human 
activity. Until we determine what caused those die-offs, all the 
critical habitat designations in the world will not bring this coral 
back. If only the $827,220 to $1,633,229 estimated to administer this 
designation (page 20) were spent on determining the cause of Acropora 
demise (it happened all over the Caribbean), we might then be further 
ahead and know what to protect them from. The chart on page 19 
contains "Conditions Monitoring" but none of the 12 items listed 
include research to determine what is killing the coral. On the same 
page, there is some murky legalistic language such as, "may trigger 
consultation under ESA section 7." The legalistic language was even 
more obtuse in the Federal Register report. Oh, the webs we weave.


No Rocks, No Water, No Ecosystem (EAS)
------------------------------------ -----------------------------------
E. A. Shinn, Courtesy Professor
University of South Florida
Marine Science Center (room 204)
140 Seventh Avenue South
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
<eshinn at marine.usf.edu>
Tel 727 553-1158---------------------------------- 

More information about the Coral-List mailing list