Implications of ESA’s New Threatened Coral Listing for the Marine Aquarium Trade

29 Aug, 2014

3 Stripe Damselfish (Dascyllus aruanus) hover over Acropora sp. coral off the Mariana Islands in Guam, one of the locations of ESA listed threatened corals. Image Dave Burdick / NOAA

3 Stripe Damselfish (Dascyllus aruanus) hover over Acropora sp. coral off the Mariana Islands in Guam, one of the locations of ESA listed threatened corals. Image Dave Burdick / NOAA

As the Marine Aquarium Conference of North America (MACNA) gets under way in Denver, Colorado, this week, some aquarists are worried about what a new federal listing of 20 coral species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) could mean for the aquarium trade. Yesterday the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) delivered their final rule based on a 2009 petition by the Center for Biological Diversity. The original petition asked NMFS to list 83 species of coral under the ESA, and, in a November 2012 draft ruling, NMFS proposed listing 66 of those species. Following a significant amount of public comment—reportedly the most extensive rulemaking process ever undertaken by NOAA—NMFS went back to the drawing board. Yesterday they finally delivered their final rule to the public, adding the 20 species of coral to the ESA as threatened.

Euphyllia paradivisa, a popular aquarium coral commonly called frogspawn (seen here offered for sale by retailer LiveAquaria.com), is now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Euphyllia paradivisa, a popular aquarium coral commonly called frogspawn (seen here offered for sale by retailer LiveAquaria.com), is now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Because the 20 species, including several popular aquarium corals, are listed as “threatened” as opposed to “endangered,” NMFS says there will be no new prohibitions placed on conduct related to corals, including the trade in either wild-harvested or aquacultured specimens belonging to the newly listed species. As the NOAA Fact Sheet on the final rule states: “ESA prohibitions against ‘take’ are not automatically applied as they are for species listed as endangered.” In short, the new rule will have no immediate impact on the aquarium trade or hobby.

Having said that, the final rule document makes it clear that the NMFS position on the aquarium trade in general is not particularly positive. In the 1104-page final rule document, the authors write:

As it currently stands, the amount of unreported, illegal, and unregulated collection, combined with the large amount of biomass loss along the supply chain raises serious questions as to the sustainability of the ornamental trade. Overall, collection and trade of coral reef wildlife is considered to contribute to some individual species’ extinction risk.

Despite holding this unenthusiastic view of the marine aquarium trade, NMFS still concludes in the document that the “extinction risk as a result of collection and trade activities” is “low,” especially when compared to other stressors like ocean acidification, sea surface temperature change, disease, terrestrial runoff and destructive commercial food fishing techniques.

In addition to discussing the negative aspects of the marine aquarium trade, the final rule document does also acknowledge improvements in both aquaculture of corals and coral restoration projects. This makes it more important than ever for the marine aquarium trade to take comprehensive reform seriously. In addition to focusing efforts on cleaning up supply chains, ensuring measurable habitat conservation is one of the best paths to a truly sustainable aquarium trade that will be viewed as a vested partner in reef conservation. As Rhyne et al write in their 2014 Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability paper titled “Is sustainable exploitation of coral reefs possible? A view from the standpoint of the marine aquarium trade”:

A fundamental shift in the structure of business practices, incentives and values are needed to move the marine aquarium trade to a more sustainable state. Rapid growth in the cultured coral trade and better fishery management in small fisheries are bright spots in the marine aquarium trade, and demonstrate that this trade can be part of a broader solution to reef conservation.

By listing the coral species but not infringing on trade or other conduct related to coral or coral reefs, NOAA has managed to, at least for the moment, thread a very small gauge needle. While this appears good for the aquarium trade at present, the new listings do open the door for additional regulations to be put in place at some point in the future. Given the negative impression of the trade as expressed in the NMFS document, some industry observers fear the listing of these corals as threatened could be just the beginning or more heavy-handed restrictions that could negatively affect the marine aquarium trade.

Editor’s Supplemental Information

The 5 Caribbean coral species newly listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act are:

Mycetophyllia ferox, Dendrogyra cylindrus, Orbicella annularis, Orbicella faveolata, Orbicella franksi

The 15 Pacific coral species newly listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act are:

Acropora globiceps, Acropora jacquelineae, Acropora lokani, Acropora pharaonis, Acropora retusa, Acropora rudis, Acropora speciosa, Acropora tenella, Anacropora spinosa, Euphyllia paradivisa, Isopora crateriformis, Montiopora australiensis, Pavona diffluens, Porites napopora, Seriatopora aculeata

Credits

Coral Reef Image Credit: David Burdick / National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce
Euphylia paradivisa Screenshot: LiveAquaria.com

Related Posts

About the author

Ret Talbot
Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is an award-winning writer and photojournalist who writes frequently on sustainability issues. He lives with his wife, artist Karen Talbot, in Rockland, Maine.

6 Comments

  1. September 04, 2014

    Ret – thank you for bringing this to everyone’s attention. For those of us who did attend MACNA and the talk given by Julian Sprung, it should be noted that this decision was based on very little and/or inaccurate data.

    In addition, it’s important for hobbyists to know PIJAC is diligently working to have these corals delisted as a threatened species while the CBD is trying to have these corals listed as endangered species. These corals are not yet protected, but this is only temporary. When protections are put into place, they will impact both wild and cultured corals equally. It’s imperative our industry and hobbyists support PIJAC and their efforts through the Marine Ornamental Defense Fund:
    http://www.pijac.org/marine

    • September 09, 2014

      Ike, Thanks for the comment. I’m unsure of how it is accurate to say that NMFS’ final rule “was based on very little and/or inaccurate data.” NMFS scientists looked at a massive amount of data, and to their credit, much of the most current data was brought to NMFS in part because of PIJAC’s efforts. There are things we might infer based on past experience and other factors, but when reporting on these issues, someone in my position needs to report facts. It is not a fact that these corals will become illegal to possess or trade, nor is it a fact that “When protections are put into place, they will impact both wild and cultured corals equally.” While those inferences may be good ones based on a variety of factors, they are currently not facts. Stating them as such seems to polarize a debate that needs an acknowledgement of the grey area in the middle. Having said that, there is absolutely nothing wrong with PIJAC saying, this is what we think is going to happen, and we are going to fight it with your support. I look forward to continuing the dialog. Best, Ret

  2. September 04, 2014

    As a long time hobbyists that also attended MACNAI feel that PIJAC should direct all focus and resources to helping establish an agreed identification process to enable the aquaculture industry to grow, thereby eliminating most wild demand and becoming a supporter of conservation.

Leave a reply

Subscribe to the CORAL eMail Newsletter

Subscribe to the CORAL eMail Newsletter

Sign up to get interesting news and updates delivered to your inbox from CORAL Magazine.

Thank you! You have successfully subscribed to the CORAL Magazine email newsletter.