Warming Waters Put Florida Coral on 'Threatened' List

ByABC News
May 5, 2006, 11:54 AM

May 5, 2006 — -- The large and stately elkhorn and staghorn coral off the coast of Florida were once two of the most dominant species on Caribbean reefs.

But now for the first time, the U.S. government has designated the two species "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

Disease, higher water temperatures, sewage pollution and hurricanes have caused a 97 percent decline in some areas.

Officials with the Center for Biological Diversity, which led the lobbying effort to protect the coral species, said the "threatened" designation would require the federal government to come up with a recovery plan and provide protection for coral habitats.

The group also said the new listing would require the United States to start grappling with climate changes brought on by global warming.

"Global warming is the ultimate engine that's driving the threats that coral reefs face throughout the Caribbean," said Brent Plater, an attorney with the center.

Plater said the Endangered Species Act would oblige the government to consider the impact of greenhouse gases -- released by the burning of fossil fuels -- on the health of the coral and force it to take action to prevent further harm.

Experts say record-high sea temperatures in the Caribbean have caused many corals to expel the colorful, nutrient-providing algae that live within the coral tissue, creating a "bleached" look. The elevated temperatures can eventually kill the coral and in turn eliminate habitat for a variety of sea creatures.

Last year was the worst bleaching event ever recorded in the Caribbean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For the first time ever recorded, nearly half of the elkhorn coral surveyed in the U.S. Virgin Islands underwent bleaching. Thirteen percent of the colonies died partially, and 8 percent died completely, according to NOAA.