“So we are way late,” said Lance Smith, a supervisory biologist at NOAA. He said the agency agreed to finish the review by April to avoid having to go back to court.
In addition to the nine species found in Hawaii, the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental group based in Arizona, is requesting review of 73 other species that can be found in Florida and in American territories in the Caribbean and Pacific.
Smith said that normally petitions are brought for a single species, so reviewing 83 different species is taking some time.
About one-third of the world’s 700 species of corals are threatened with extinction, according to a study by the Global Marine Species Assessment, marking a sharp increase from 2 percent a decade ago.
The brilliantly colored corals found on near-shore reefs are believed to support 25 percent of the world’s sea life. In Hawaii, the corals have been threatened by fishing, recreational activities and runoff that chokes the reefs. Scientists say rising ocean temperatures, due to global warming, and pollution, are also main culprits in the death of coral reefs. Warmer waters cause a process called bleaching, in which coral expel the colorful algae necessary for their survival.
NOAA is also required to designate critical habitat for threatened and endangered species that would be subject to rules for protecting corals.
Any permits or public funding needed for activities in protected areas would be subject to a higher level of review if the coral is listed as threatened or endangered, and the government could require that measures be taken to protect the species. A listing under the Endangered Species Act would also make it illegal for coral to be harmed or killed, actions that can entail stiff penalties of up to $50,000 and a year in prison.
The latest move to protect marine species could stoke anger from local fishermen concerned that federal protections for endangered species could harm their livelihoods.
NOAA has proposed expanding a critical habitat zone for monk seals from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands to the main Hawaiian Islands.
While NOAA representatives have stressed that the monk seal designation would have little to no impact on fishing, it has caused heated protests at recent meetings. Fishing operations that require a federal permit have the potential to be affected.
NOAA also hopes to transfer up to 60 monk seal pups from the remote Hawaiian islands to the main islands with the hopes of increasing survival rates. While scientists say the species has declined to perilously low levels and need extra protections, fishermen have argued that the seals threaten their fishing operations and their aggressive behavior is a threat to human safety.
In regards to coral protections, any impacts on fishing operations would likely pertain to large commercial opearations, according to Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
“It’s not going to make everyone happy,” she said.
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