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Coral Biology and Coral Reefs
Corals are colonial invertebrates that excrete a calcium carbonate skeleton. There are two main types of corals: reef-building (AKA hermatypic) corals, which are only found in tropical regions, and non-reef-building (AKA ahermatypic) corals, which do not produce reefs and are found worldwide. Most reef-building corals contain microscopic symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae which live inside the coral tissue. Like other algae, zooxanthellae need sunlight for photosynthesis, and the photosynthetic pigments give corals much of their color. The zooxanthellae provide food for the coral, and remove some of the corals' waste products. In return, the coral tissue provides a stable, sunny habitat for the zooxanthellae.
Coral reefs provide habitat for thousands of reef fish, invertebrates, and other organisms. Corals reefs form a barrier along coasts and around islands offering shoreline protection from storms. Coral reefs support fishing, scuba diving, boating, and other activities that generate billions of dollars per year worldwide.
Corals are Valuable in Many Ways
Corals are tremendously important to the biodiversity of the world's oceans and they have measurable economic value for communities around the world. Reefs provide home and shelter to over 25% of fish in the ocean and up to two million marine species. The direct economic and social benefits of coral reefs are real and wide ranging.
One independent study reported that coral reefs provide approximate $483 million in annual net benefit to the U.S. economy from tourism and recreation activities and a combined annual net benefit from all goods and services of about $1.1 billion. NOAA also estimates the annual commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs to be more than $100 million; reef-based recreational fisheries generate an additional $100 million annually.
Major Threats to Coral Reefs
Corals are facing severe threats, and it’s highly likely that these threats will increase over time. NOAA identified 19 threats, including: rise in ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, disease, ecological effects of fishing, and poor land-use practices. The three major threats identified – rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and disease – are all directly or indirectly linked to greenhouse gas emissions and a changing climate. But, despite the broad global threats to corals, there is evidence that alleviating more local stressors can help improve resiliency for many coral species.
Corals of the U.S. Pacific Islands Region
Corals and coral reefs are found around the islands and atolls of the Pacific Island Region, which consists of the Hawaiian Islands (State of Hawaii), the Marianas Islands (Territory of Guam and Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands), the eastern portion of the Samoan Islands (Territory of American Samoa), and several islands and atolls in the central Pacific collectively referred to as the Pacific Remote Island Area (PRIA, which includes Wake Island, Johnston Atoll, Palmyra Atoll, Kingman Reef, Jarvis Island, Baker Island, and Howland Island). In the Pacific Islands Region, biodiversity of marine organisms, including corals, is higher in the Mariana Islands, lower in the Hawaiian Islands, and intermediate in American Samoa and PRIA. While marine biodiversity is relatively low in the Hawaiian Islands, many of its marine species are endemic (found nowhere else).
A checklist of coral species in the Marianas Islands (Randall 2003) (April 2003, pdf 303kB) lists 403 coral species, including both reef-building and non-reef-building species. In American Samoa, a checklist of coral species in the three units (Tutuila, Ta'u, Ofu) of the National Park of American Samoa (DiDonato et al. 2006) (Oct 2007, pdf 396kB) lists 227 coral species, including both reef-building and non-reef-building species. In the Hawaiian Islands, 59 species of reef-building corals have been documented (Maragos et al. 2004) (Feb 2005, pdf 326 kB), and recent investigations have reported several more species from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Between 48 and 180 coral species have been reported from each of the seven PRIA islands or atolls (Kenyon 2010) (Feb 2010, pdf 61kB).
Petition to list as an Endangered Species:
On October 20, 2009, NOAA Fisheries (also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service) received a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to list 83 species of corals as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Of the 83 petitioned species, 8 occur in the Atlantic, and 75 occur in the Pacific. The petitioner also requested that critical habitat be designated for these corals concurrent with listing under the ESA. The petition cites the synergistic threats of ocean warming, ocean acidification, and other impacts, stating that immediate action is needed to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations to levels that do not jeopardize these species. The petition also cites dredging, coastal development, coastal point source pollution, agricultural and land use practices, disease, predation, reef fishing, aquarium trade, physical damage from boats and anchors, marine debris, and aquatic invasive species.
- Petition to list 83 coral species as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (Oct 2009, pdf 4 MB)
90-day finding on the petition to list 83 coral species:
On February 10, 2010, NOAA Fisheries announced in the Federal Register (75 FR 6616) a finding that the petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to list 83 species of corals as threatened or endangered under the ESA presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted for 82 of the 83 petitioned species. NOAA Fisheries has initiated a status review of the 82 species to determine if listing under the ESA is warranted. If we find that the petition presents substantial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted, to the maximum extent practicable, we are required to publish in the Federal Register a general notice and the complete text of a proposed regulation to implement such action within 12 months after receiving the petition.
- Coral 90-day Finding, Federal Register (75 FR 6616, January 5, 2010) (Feb 2010, pdf 69 kB)
NOAA Proposes Listing 66 Reef-building Coral Species under the Endangered Species Act
On December, 7, 2012, NOAA Fisheries proposed Endangered Species Act (ESA) listings for 66 coral species: 59 in the Pacific and seven in the Caribbean.
- In the Pacific, seven species would be listed as endangered and 52 as threatened.
- In the Caribbean, five would be listed as endangered and two as threatened.
In addition, we are proposing that two Caribbean species—elkhorn and staghorn corals—already listed under the ESA be reclassified from threatened to endangered.
NOAA Fisheries extends final rulemaking deadline on proposed corals listings.
NOAA Fisheries is extending the final determination deadline for all 68 proposed corals from December 2013 to June 2014, due to substantial scientific disagreement evident in the public comments received on the proposed listings. View the published corals 6-month extension notice here.
A Science-Based Decision
In 2009, NOAA received petition to list 83 species of reef-building corals under the ESA from the Center for Biological Diversity. On February 10, 2010, NOAA found that the Center presented substantial information indicating that listing under the ESA may be warranted for 82 of the 83 petitioned species.
Following the initial finding, NOAA convened a Biological Review Team to initiate a formal status review of the 82 species. The result was a Status Review Report, released in April 2012. The peer-reviewed report incorporated and summarized the best available scientific and commercial data to date.
The agency also conducted a public engagement process between April and July 2012 to gather additional scientific information, allow time for a public review of the Status Review and Draft Management Reports, and to further engage the public. All relevant information gathered was summarized in a new Supplemental Information Report.Together, the Status Review, Supplemental Information, and Final Management reports form the basis of our proposed listing.
How can I submit comments?
This proposed listing is not yet final. Before making a final decision on this proposal, we are asking for comments from all interested parties. The public has 90 days to provide additional comments, which will be considered before NOAA issues its final decision.
- Submit a public comment online. Go to www.regulations.gov and enter 0648-XT12 or NOAA-NMFS-2010-0036 into the keyword search.
- Comment period has been extended 30 days and must be received by April 6, 2013.
Public hearings about the proposed listing of 66 reef-building coral species under the Endangered Species Act were held across the Pacific Islands Region during January and February of 2013. For more information about these public hearings, please click here.
- Federal Register Notice (77 FR 73220) (December 7, 594kB)
- Press Release
- Determination Tool — A replicable method for distilling relevant information from the status review report and subsequent input that contributes to each species’ extinction risk and listing status. It helps us convey a transparent process for making 82 separate determinations.
- Determination Tool Flowchart
- Status Review Report of 82 Candidate Coral Species — Examines the biology of, threats to, and extinction risk of 82 coral species. (Nov 2012, 19.1Mb) *please note this is a very large file
- List of 66 Proposed Corals
- Frequently Asked Questions Fact Sheet (Nov 2012, 116kB)
- How do I submit comments? (5.23 MB)
- Comment Form - 30 day extension (6.37 MB)
- Public Hearings and More Information - One Pager (5.28 MB)
- Coral Hearing Presentation (936 kB)
- Species Identification Book (9.60 MB)
- Final Management Report
(Nov 2012, 2.47Mb) —Describes existing regulatory mechanisms and ongoing conservation efforts to manage and conserve the 82 coral species throughout the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific.
- Supplemental Information Report
(Nov 2012, 1.85Mb) —Compiles information gathered during the agency's public engagement process that occurred between April and July 2012 to gather additional scientific information and allow time for a review of the reports released.
- Hawaii Coral Species (6.56 MB)
- Hawaii Species Poster (3.08 MB)
- Coral Reef Ecosystem Survey Sites Map (4.71 MB )
- Density of Montipora patula and M. flabellata at Coral Reef Ecosystem Survey Location Maps
- Coral Frequently Asked Questions (5.41 MB)
- Guam Coral Species (8.03 MB)
- American Samoa Coral Species (9.61 MB)
Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI)
- CNMI Coral Species (8.25 MB)
Olelo broadcasts NOAA Fisheries Corals Public Hearing
Olelo taped the February 7, 2013, NOAA Fisheries Public Hearing regarding the Proposed Listing of Coral Species under the Endangered Species Act. Airdates, times and channels for broadcasts of the Honolulu public hearing are as follows:
NOAA - Coral Public Hearing
2/18/2013 9:00 AM FOCUS 49
2/21/2013 1:00 PM OAHU 55
2/26/2013 8:00 AM OAHU 55
3/01/2013 6:00 PM FOCUS 49
The video can also be watched via Olelo's website.
Contacts for More Information
NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office
NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources
For Additional Information please check out:
NOAA Fisheries National
NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Region
NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center
Following are links to websites with more information about corals in the U.S. Pacific, coral management issues, and the ESA: