NOAA priorities preclude critical habitat revisions for staghorn coral in South Florida
75 Fed. Reg. 3711 (Friday, January 22, 2010) / Notices
DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Docket No. 0907081108–91430–02 / RIN 0648–XP68
Listing Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Designating Critical Habitat; 12–month Determination on How to Proceed with a Petition to Revise Designated Critical Habitat for Elkhorn and Staghorn Corals
AGENCY: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce.
ACTION: Notice of 12–month determination.
SUMMARY: We, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), announce our 12–month determination on how to proceed with a petition to revise the critical habitat designation for elkhorn (Acropora palmata) and staghorn (A. cervicornis) corals pursuant to section 4(b)(3)(D)(ii) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, as amended. Elkhorn and staghorn corals are listed as threatened throughout their ranges and have designated critical habitat consisting of substrate of suitable quality and availability to support successful larval settlement and recruitment, and successful reattachment and recruitment of asexual fragments in water depths shallower than 30 meters in four areas in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The petition seeks to extend the northern boundary of designated critical habitat in the Florida area to the Lake Worth Inlet, which is approximately 15.5 miles (25 km) north of the current boundary at Boynton Beach Inlet, based on the discovery of staghorn corals north of the existing critical habitat boundary. We have evaluated the available scientific information and have decided, based on the adequacy of the existing, recent designation to meet the corals’ conservation needs, the relatively low benefit the requested revision would provide, the protections afforded to the species from the recent ESA section 4(d) regulations, and our need to complete higher priority conservation activities for these and other coral species, to deny the petitioned action. DATES: The finding announced in this document was made on January 22, 2010.
EXCERPT: As noted above, we received the current petition to revise critical habitat less than 2 months after we finalized the existing designation. Designating critical habitat in accordance with the provisions of the ESA is a significant undertaking. The process of designating the current critical habitat for elkhorn and staghorn corals consumed significant personnel resources (i.e., 1.5 full-time employees) for the better part of a 2–year period. Were we to undertake a revision of the recently designated critical habitat, our limited resources would again be diverted from other work, which in turn would delay the completion of other priorities, yet would only realize a very small change (offering limited benefits) in the critical habitat area for one of the coral species. At this time, we believe that a greater conservation benefit for both species of coral, and the appropriate course of action, lie in the completion and implementation of a recovery plan that is currently under development, and that will address all threats inhibiting the conservation and recovery of these species throughout their ranges. We also note that we are currently working to implement our mandatory obligations under the statute regarding a recently received petition to list 83 species of corals as endangered or threatened, 8 of which co-occur in the Atlantic and Caribbean Oceans with staghorn and elkhorn corals, and to designate critical habitat for these species.
KEITHINKING: This controversy broke out when Reef Relief discovered thriving populations of coral where local government officials had told the federal government that coral did not exist. See Palm Beach Post story in October 2009. Local news reports characterized the decision as one of environmental protection vs. beach renourishment. See Palm Beach Post in January 2010. Sadly, South Florida's recent cold snap was very hard on the coral populations. See KeysNet.com, although which reefs were affected, and to what extent, is still being assessed. Photo above of bleached staghorn coral from USGS South Florida Ecosystem Science Forum.