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Habitat Designation Would Protect Endangered Corals

Feb. 11, 2008 — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants to designate areas around St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix as critical habits for the endangered elkhorn and staghorn corals.
The proposal also names areas in Florida and Puerto Rico.
The areas encircle each of the islands from the high-water mark until a point off shore where the water reaches 98 feet deep, said Jennifer Moore, a NOAA natural-resource specialist based in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"The purpose is to provide for species conservation," she said. "In terms of endangered species this means recovery."
NOAA will hold public hearings on the proposal from 6 to 8 p.m. March 11 on St. Thomas at the University of the Virgin Islands' Administration and Conference Center first floor conference room. The hearing will be simulcast at UVI's St. Croix campus in Great Hall Room 134.
The proposed rules and regulations are found at the NOAA website.
Naming the areas as critical habitats will help to bring the coral back to where it used to be, Moore said, acknowledging that coral in some areas of St. Thomas may not be up to same level as coral on St. John and St. Croix. Making the areas critical habitats will not prohibit fishing, she said.
Regulations are needed to bring federal and territorial agencies together, said Zandy Hillis-Starr, chief of resource management at Buck Island Reef National Monument on St. Croix.
"We need a broad brushstroke," she said.
Elkhorn and staghorn corals are extremely important because they are the species that built Buck Island reef, Hillis-Starr said. The federal government listed them as endangered species in 2006.
"We've got them protected," Hillis-Starr said. "Now we have to protect their habitat."
Designating critical habitats is a requirement of the Endangered Species Act, according to a NOAA news release. Scientists estimate that more than 90 percent of elkhorn and staghorn corals have been lost because of disease, coral bleaching and tropical-storm damage, the release says. Additionally, the overall deterioration of coral-reef habitats appears to be compromising the species' ability to reproduce, making this proposed designation even more important.
"Designating critical habitat for these species is important, because it informs the public of areas that are crucial to the conservation of the species and identifies where conservation actions will be most effective," said Roy Crabtree, NOAA Fisheries Service's southeast regional administrator. "The designation will also help ensure that federal-government activities are planned to avoid destruction of these important habitats."
The area around St. Thomas and St. John covers 121 square miles, with the area around St. Croix covering about 126 square miles. The area in Puerto Rico covers 1,283 miles, while the Florida area stretches from Palm Beach County through the Dry Tortugas for an area of about 3,301 square miles.
While the designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve or other conservation area, it does require that federal agencies undertake, fund or permit activities that may affect critical habitat to consult with the NOAA Fisheries Service to ensure actions do not adversely modify or destroy critical habitat.
NOAA is required to develop scientific information about the areas named as critical habitats, Moore said.
"We're looking for public comment regarding whether the scientific information is accurate," she said.
Comments may be submitted by May 6 — with "RIN 0648-AV35" included in the subject line — by various methods. Visit regulations.gov to send email comments. Fax comments to Jennifer Moore at 727-824-5309 or mail to Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected Resources Division, NMFS, Southeast Regional Office, 263 13th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.
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