Commentary – NOAA’s 2012/2013 66-Coral ESA Proposal

04 Apr, 2013

Euphyllia parancora, one of 66 stony coral species proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Euphyllia parancora, one of 66 stony coral species proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

OPINION
By Matt Pedersen,
CORAL Magazine Senior Editor

PIJAC, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, issued a call to action on April 3rd, 2013, for everyone involved in the aquarium industry and hobby to submit public commentary in response to the NOAA Proposal to list 66 CORAL Species on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as we first reported late November, 2012.

For those already familiar with the issue and simply looking for instructions on how to submit commentary before the 11:59 PM EDT April 5th 2013 deadline, hop on over to the short, informative article we’ve also published today and be sure to read PIJAC’s directives before you draft your comments.  We should emphasize that for ESA purposes, public commentary is fundamental to the process of listings, so don’t think you won’t be heard.  For more background, insight, and opinion, CORAL Sr. Editor Matt Pedersen invites you to read on.

What exactly is being proposed?

Matt Pedersen, aquaculturist and CORAL Magazine Senior Editor

Matt Pedersen, aquaculturist and CORAL Magazine Senior Editor

The 66 proposed coral species are split into two ESA categories, “endangered” and “threatened”. Most of the species receiving an “endangered” recommendation include Caribbean species we should already be familiar with such as the Staghorn Coral, Acropora cervicornis (Critically Endangered, IUCN Red List) and the Elkhorn Coral, A. palmata (Critically Endangered, IUCN Red List).

Two Indo-Pacific species, commonplace in the aquarium trade, also have been suggested as “endangered.” The two in question are the commonly maricultured Acropora lokani (listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Redlist) and ubiquitous (and equally commonly propagated) Frogspawn Coral, Euphyllia paradivisa (Vulnerable, IUCN Red List).

The slew of species proposed to receive “threatened” status include the readily aquacultured Grape Coral, Euphyllia cristata (Vulnerable, IUCN Red List), the Branching Hammer Coral, Euphyllia parancora (Vulnerable, IUCN Red List), as well as at least a few Acropora species available as maricultured livestock (just today, on the first webiste I checked, both A. aspera and A. retusa were readily available for purchase as maricultured specimens).  Of course, most of the coral genera we are familiar with are well represented in this group, be it SeriatoporaAlveoporaAcanthastreaMontiporaPocillipora etc… [view the full proposed list here]

How is this different than the same effort back in 2010?

Many of the species names are “just off the mark”; that is to say many coral species far more prevelent in the aquarium trade share similar IUCN listings, yet they were not included in this massive proposed list?

What was the motivation for selecting these particular 66 species?

It is interesting to note that the 2010 attempt to list 82 coral species covered the bulk of these same species. [view the 2010 proposed list here].  By my calculations, this is simply a re-attempt at what failed in 2010 [Editor’s update – Dustin Dorton, president of ORA, clarfied that this 2012/2013 movement is simply a continuation of the 2010 effort, moving forward with 66 species vs. the original 82/83 species].  The species omitted from the 2012 attempt included Cyphastrea agassizi, C. ocellina, Galaxia astreata, Heliopora coerulea, Leptoseris incrustans, L. yabei, Oculina varicosa, Pavona bipartite, P. cactus, P. decussate, P. venosa, Porites horizontalata, P. pukoensis, Psammocora stellata, Turbinaria mesenterina, T. peltata, T. reniformis, and T. stellula. I recognize all these genera, and many of the species, including several that I’ve personally kept at one point or another.

What are the problems with placing these corals under ESA protections?

Ultimately, which species names get listed under ESA protection is a non-issue because no one in law enforcement can be reasonably expected to look at a coral in a bag, all closed up, and have any clue whether it’s a permitted or prohibited species.  Can we really expect a Fish & Wildlife officer to be able to discern that a coral is a specimen of  the potentially prohibited Caulastrea echinulata (NOAA proposed ESA Threatened, Vulnerable on IUCN Red List), and not the permitted Candycane Coral Caulastrea furcata (not included in the ESA proposal, Least Concern on IUCN Red List) or Trumpet Coral, C. curvata (again, not on ESA list, Vulnerable on IUCN Red List). Nevermind that all species of Caulastrea corals could already be available in the trade and are easily propagated / aquacultured / maricultured.

Then again, could law enforcement even be realistically expected to discern any Caulastrea coral from a similar coral from another genus, say  something like the Branching Hammer, Euphyllia parancora?  Does our hypothetical inspector even have the time to really do this job effectively while trying to catch the guys smuggling tarantulas, venemous snakes, or elephant ivory?

What is the practical answer to all of this?  In my opinion, the enforcement solution is most likely a shoot first, ask questions later approach to any and all trade in coral, dead or alive, when it comes to law enforcement.

Given the track record of seized livestock, it’s not unreasonable to think that USFWS would lack the ability to safely house the corals they seize, let alone be able to ID them and return them to you should it turn out they were wrong (hey, what ever happened to those 40+ Clipperton Angelfish they confiscated a few years back?  Anyone out there know?).  [Editor: They all perished, according to a source at the Steinhart Aquarium.]

Since there is no realistic expectation of any front-line Fish and Wildlife Inspector to be able to visually identify every last one of the 170 Acropora species out there, let alone to effectively deal with a tremendous uptick in valid and invalid seizures of livestock,  it may be functionally easier to simply disallow ALL Acropora species, regardless of origin, from entering the country.

Then again, I don’t know anyone who can identify every last species of coral just by looking at it, so if I were in charge of enforcing the law and these listsings, the only sensible thing to do would be to ban all trade completely. This presents a horrible conundrum for the an aquarium trade and hobby that, in general terms, I think usually wants to do the right thing save for a few bad apples. (I make that estimation by the number of Floridian Elkhorn or Staghorn Corals in private aquarist’s tanks—zero to the best of my knowledge!).

Don’t we already regulate the coral trade?

Meanwhile, the international trade in coral is already regulated by CITES.  Do we need ESA blanket listings over dozens of mostly obscure-to-the-trade, non-native species when CITES is already in place to relegate trade in corals not native to our waters? I say absolutely not – let CITES do what it is supposed to do, and use the ESA to protect our native species from the aquarium trade (which it has already done very well – again, anyone out there keeping Acropora cervicornis or A. palmata?).

Paphiopedilum tigrinum - on the IUCN Red List as critically endangered, yet permitted under CITES for international trade provided it is captive-bred.

Paphiopedilum tigrinum – on the IUCN Red List as critically endangered, yet permitted under CITES for international trade provided it is captive-bred.

It’s interesting to consider that perhaps someday a ban on wild-harvest of live coral could be put into place by CITES; such blanket bans already exist for the orchids of the genera Paphiopedilum and Phragmipedium, both CITES Appendix I listed.  Yet international trade in captive-propagated specimens of these orchids is permitted; this is possible because orchid propagation requires sealed and sanitary conditions, yielding baby plants in a glass flask.  Such a “flask” cannot be created with wild-harvested plants, and therefore “in-vitro” orchids can only be captive-propagated, and thus, are permitted for trade.

Even more interesting, there is a legal pathway for newly-discovered orchids, which are automatically prohibited by genus-level blanket bans, to enter the commercial market and hobbyist’s greenhouse.  Since CITES only regulates international trade, what occurs at the national level is the responsibility of the country of origin. So if a hypothetical new Paphiopedilum orchid is discovered in Vietnam, it is possible that a legal and government-sanctioned collection of broodstock (or even simply wild seed), resulting in captive-propagation in Vietnam, could ultimately result in captive-propagated plants being available on the global market.  Since Vietnam is repsonsible for approving the export, that’s the final step for a new, automatically protected species, to legitimately entered the worldwide trade. This is a good scenario – practical upshots include more revenue for Vietnam, but also a strong disincentive for a black market trade to develop, while a captive reserve population of the species develops within the orchid industry and community.

Such a scenario could one day occur under CITES, should CITES determine that wild-harvest of coral is no longer viable.  Just as with orchids, CITES could again provide a legitimate exemption for maricultured and aquacultured corals. On some levels this is easy to prove through growth on an artificial substrate, but unlike orchids, the pitfall being that “chop shop” mariculture operations. An ocean-based grower could use  illegally-harvested “wild broodstock” colonies that are then cut, grown out for a couple weeks until encrusted, and then sold as “maricultured;” an easy way to hide a wild-harvested coral as maricultured and take advantage of the loophole.  Obviously, more would have to be done under CITES to construct and tailor a protocol that permits cultured coral to be traded yet prevents wild-harvest, but the groundwork and parallels are there, and it’s been done before.  This is a workable problem should we ever come to that.  So I see no need for the ESA to get involved in regulation the importation of animals that are already regulated under CITES.

How could a successful ESA listing affect the home aquarist?

Turning back to the Endangered Species Act, don’t overlook the at-home implications of an ESA listing.  Being listed as an endangered species under the ESA makes it illegal to own or propagate the species under the “Take Prohibition”—”Endangered species, their parts, or any products made from them may not be imported, exported, possessed, or sold” according to the Earth Justice Citizen’s Guide to the ESA.

It is unclear that there would be any legal way to provide exceptions or grandfather in past legal ownership or propagation.  Could your next “20,000 Leagues Lokani” frag be your last, or worse, do you have to grind your entire Candy Cane Coral colony into a pulp or risk jail time or fines for owning it, despite having purchased it legally years prior?

Should these listings go into effect, will the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have a “Reefer’s Amnesty Day” where we can all turn in our then contraband livestock?

Pragmatically, the aquarium-industry implications of this proposal are such that we could quite literally all return to keeping fish-only marine aquariums.  That is, we’ll be fine with fish until we have to deal with any successful efforts by the Center for Biological Diversity to list Amphiprion percula as an endangered species under the ESA (at which point am I required by law to flush the 200 baby Percula Clownfish I spawned and reared in my basement or risk civil and criminal penalties for owning a newly-dubbed “endangered species”?).

So what’s an aquarist to do?

I for one value the Endangered Species Act and what it has done to protect our biodiversity here at home.  That said, the broad application of it on non-native species, particularly those already regulated by CITES, is overreaching and potentially incredibly harmful to the aquarium industry and hobby as well.  My commentary will express my support for the ESA, but within the framework of judicious applications and the need to revise the legal frameworks so that aquarists like us don’t get swept up in a coral prohibition era.

Download or view the full PIJAC release to learn more about their official stance on this important issue, and to learn how you can submit your vitally important public commentary.

IMAGE Credit: Janine Cairns-Michael/Aquarium Corals (Microcosm/TFH)

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About the author

Matt Pedersen
Matt Pedersen

Matt Pedersen is a Sr. Editor and Associate Publisher with Reef To Rainforest Media, LLC, including AMAZONAS & CORAL Magazines. Matt has kept aquariums for 34 years, has worked in most facets of the aquarium trade, is an active aquarist and fish breeder (both marine and freshwater), and was recognized as the 2009 MASNA Aquarist of the Year.

6 Comments

  1. April 04, 2013

    If you think that government won’t mess this up look at the beautiful Oryx that has been in Texas for a long time. With no regulation their numbers have increased to where there are more in Texas than in their home country. So what does the government do? You got it, regulation. They have levied such a high permit fee that most cannot hunt them. It is just a matter of time before their numbers drop.
    Our government does not know what common sense is?

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