Group Plans Suit Against Bush Administration for Ignoring Global Warming Threat to Coral Habitat

Federal Protection of Coral Habitat in Florida and the Caribbean Falls Short

The Center for Biological Diversity on Wednesday will give the Bush administration official notice of its intent file a lawsuit for illegally excluding global warming and ocean acidification threats from a new rule protecting habitat for elkhorn and staghorn corals. The federal government announced today that it will designate almost 3,000 square miles of reef area off the coasts of Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act for the threatened corals. The new rule, to be published in Wednesday’s Federal Register, was required by a court-approved settlement of a 2007 lawsuit brought by the Center.

Although the polar bear has gained more notoriety, elkhorn coral and staghorn coral — which were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2006 — have the dubious honor of being the first species protected under the Endangered Species Act due to threats to their survival primarily caused by global warming. The law requires that when a species is listed under the Act, the federal government must protect habitat that is essential to its survival and recovery. In the new critical-habitat rule, the federal government designated important areas to be protected for the corals, but created a giant loophole that disregards the primary threats to coral habitat: elevated seawater temperatures and ocean acidification.

“The critical-habitat rule exposes the Bush agenda to ignore global warming, while rising temperatures are driving corals extinct,” said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The rule shows the double standard of the Bush administration. On one hand, the law required the federal government to identify areas to protect for the threatened corals. On the other hand, the administration skirted the real threats to coral habitat, global warming and ocean acidification, by inserting language into the rule that carves out an exception for those threats. It is not only irrational, but it is illegal under the Endangered Species Act.”

Once the most abundant and important reef-building corals in Florida and the Caribbean, staghorn and elkhorn corals have declined by more than 90 percent in many areas, mainly as a result of disease and “bleaching,” an often-fatal stress response to abnormally high water temperatures in which corals expel the symbiotic algae that give them color. The rising temperature of the ocean as a result of global warming is the single greatest threat to these two coral species, as well as coral reefs more generally worldwide. A related threat, ocean acidification, caused by the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide, impairs the ability of corals to build their protective skeletons. Scientists have predicted that most of the world’s coral reefs will disappear by midcentury due to global warming and ocean acidification under a business-as-usual emissions scenario.

Center for Biological Diversity, 25 November 2008. Article.

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