Corals seem closer to greater protection

Listing seven corals found in the Florida Keys under Endangered Species Act protections should not affect most reef visitors, federal officials said Tuesday in Key Largo.

Even if reefs are designated as “critical habitat” under the act, “That does not prohibit activities generally, like fishing or diving,” said Jennifer Moore, a Protected Species specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“People think critical habitat automatically means everything is prohibited, and that is not usually the case,” she said. “Human-inducted physical damage” ranks as a low threat to the specific corals, she said.

“If you do your activity in a way that is mindful of protecting the species, there would be no prohibition,” she said.

Rising ocean temperatures, coral diseases and ocean acidification linked to greenhouse gases are the greatest threats, she said during a comment session held at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo.

The session drew only about a dozen people. No one protested the proposed listing of staghorn coral, elkhorn coral, pillar coral, boulder star coral, mountain star coral and star coral as endangered.

Staghorn and elkhorn now are listed as threatened species. Lamarck’s sheet coral and elliptical star coral are being considered for new listing as threatened.

State Department of Transportation permit coordinator John Palenchar said the agency needs to make sure that corals found growing on a bridge support column would not prevent critically needed repairs.

“It’s a new level of protection and we want to abide by the regulations,” Palenchar said. “But we don’t want to get so bogged down in process that we can’t maintain the bridges.”

DOT already works with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to transplant corals that could be hurt by underwater work, he said.

A blanket permit for DOT maintenance likely would not be difficult to obtain, a Fisheries Service staffer said.
A representative of the Coral Restoration Foundation created by Ken Nedimyer also asked about permitting. Moore said the Fisheries Service works closely with Nedimyer and supports his efforts.

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