May 9, 2006 – Elkhorn and staghorn corals last week were listed as threatened species by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service. A species is considered threatened if it is likely to become an endangered species in the foreseeable future.
"This is the first time a coral species has been listed as threatened in the United States," said NOAA Fisheries Service assistant administrator Bill Hogarth in a press release.
The agency is holding conservation workshops during May in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to develop regulations concerning the threatened species.
It wants to hear what the public has to say on programs and activities that affect the coral species, physical and biological features essential for conservation, and possible areas to designate as critical habitat.
The conservation workshops will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. May 23 at the Curriculum Center on St. Croix and from 6 to 8 p.m. May 24 at the Holiday Inn Windward Passage on St. Thomas.
"As a threatened species, they do not automatically get protection," said Brent Plater, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity.
He said the listing came about because the Center for Biological Diversity requested in March 2004 that NOAA list the corals as threatened or endangered species on the Endangered Species list.
According to NOAA's listing, the agency decided on the "threatened" designation rather than "endangered" because the number of colonies of both species at Buck Island, St. Croix, is increasing. However, the agency wrote that in the future they could become extinct, so the "threatened" designation applies.
There are numerous threats to elkhorn and staghorn coral.
"Coral disease, big storms and increased sea temperatures are the big three threats," Plater said.
He said that people stepping on coral cause damage, but it is not as big a threat as disease, storms and warm water.
Caroline Rogers, a marine ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey on St. John, said that there are signs posted at some V.I. National Park beaches alerting snorkelers and divers to the dangers to the coral and to the divers when they touch the corals.
However, she said when coral gets broken because it was stepped on, it's almost always an accident.
"It's almost always lack of knowledge. It's an alien environment," she said.
Rogers said that boats running aground also cause problems.
The Friends of the Park group is working on this issue by creating stickers for charter boat companies to affix somewhere on their boats.
"It's a last-minute reminder to look beneath you before you drop anchor," said Friends development director Karen Brady.
Brady said that charter companies on St. John, St. Thomas and Tortola have agreed to put up the stickers.
Brady said the Friends have asked Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund to pay for a video to be shown on cruise ships that demonstrates what to do and what not to do when people are around coral.
Rogers stressed the importance of elkhorn coral because it is the major reef builder in the Virgin Islands.
She said elkhorn colonies can be several meters across, but it is very vulnerable to damage because it is close to shore and in shallow water.
The elkhorn coral serves a habitat for other species, including the parrot fish. She said it can often be found sleeping in the shelter of elkhorn coral at night.
Rogers said that in the Virgin Islands, staghorn usually grows deeper in the water and doesn't form reefs like elkhorn coral.
Rogers said that corals in the Virgin Islands were already stressed when last summer's extraordinarily warm water caused them to bleach. According to the Internet encyclopedia, Wikipedia, coral bleaching results when symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae are released from the host coral due to stress such as overly warm water. When the zooxantheallae are expelled, the coral loses its pigment, leading to a bleached or completely white appearance.
Rogers said 45 percent of the elkhorn corals in a monitoring program suffered bleaching.
"Eight percent in the monitoring program completely died," she said.
She said about 400 sites around St. John are being monitored.
However, she said that some elkhorn corals are recovering because the water began to cool down in October, but that it will take decades for them to return to their original condition.
"Elkhorn only grows a few inches a year," she said.
As for the coming summer, Rogers isn't hopeful. She said thermometers placed at various locations around St. John already show that the water is on track to be as warm as last summer, which means more bleaching can occur.
"This is worse than hurricane damage," she said.
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