Local corals in lawsuit Environmental group files suit to protect corals

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ST. THOMAS - The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit along with a settlement agreement Tuesday to have the federal government take the next step in including 82 species of corals on the endangered species list.

Eight of the 82 corals are found in V.I. waters. Under the agreement, the federal government has until April 15 to determine if each species warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act.

"The settlement is a victory for corals because it will speed efforts to reduce threats and protect coral habitat," Miyoko Sakashita, director of the Center's oceans program, said.

The settlement is the result of an October 2009 petition from the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to list the 82 corals as threatened or endangered.

The corals, which occur in U.S. waters from Florida and Hawaii to American territories in the Caribbean and Pacific, have all declined by more than 30 percent during a 30-year period, according to the center.

The petition stated that the eight Caribbean corals - Lamarck's sheet coral, boulder star coral, mountainous star coral, star coral, pillar coral, elliptical star coral, rough cactus coral and large ivory coral - face multiple threats that include bleaching; disease; stronger hurricanes; and storms, pollution and sedimentation as a result of coastal development and chronic overfishing. In addition, all corals face a growing threat of extinction because of rising ocean temperatures caused by global warming and the related threat of ocean acidification, the petition stated.

The federal government failed to respond to the petition by the statutory deadline, which prompted the environmental group to file a notice of intent to sue.

Before a lawsuit was filed, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that it was launching a full status review to determine whether the 82 corals warrant the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The agency's 90-day report found that all but one species warranted listing, and the Marine Fisheries Service said a full 12-month finding would be issued detailing the protections warranted under the Endangered Species Act.

No 12-month finding was ever submitted.

In January, the nonprofit center again filed a notice informing NOAA of its intent to sue within 60 days unless a decision was made about listing the corals under the Endangered Species Act.

Both parties entered settlement talks immediately after the notice was filed, and because of that, the center held off on suing the government, Sakashita said.

The only reason the lawsuit was filed along with the settlement agreement was to make the settlement enforceable by the courts, Sakashita said Tuesday.

Under the settlement, the government has until April 15 to complete the 12-month findings for the 82 coral species.

Once the 12-month finding is complete, a proposed rule will be entered for each species deemed worthy of federal protection.

"It really ended up being a win-win for both parties," Sakashita said.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, scientists have warned that coral reefs are likely to be the first worldwide ecosystem to collapse because of global warming and predict that all the world's reefs could be destroyed by 2050.

Protection under the Endangered Species Act would lead to more coral reef conservation because fishing, dumping, dredging and offshore oil development would be subject to federal regulation.

Also, the protection would require federal agencies to ensure that their actions do not harm the coral species.

In 2006, elkhorn and staghorn corals became the first, and so far only, coral species protected under the Endangered Species Act. The listing of staghorn and elkhorn corals - both of which are found in the Virgin Islands - also came in response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity. The two species are listed as threatened.

For information about the group, visit www.biologicaldiversity.org.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 774-7882 ext. 311 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.The 82 coral species live in U.S. waters - from Florida and Hawaii to U.S. territories in the Caribbean and Pacific. The eight endangered corals found in U.S. Virgin Islands waters are:

- Agaricia lamarcki (Lamarck's sheet coral)

- Montastraea annularis (boulder star coral)

- Montastraea faveolata (mountainous star coral)

- Montastraea franksi (star coral)

- Dendrogyra cylindrus (pillar coral)

- Dichocoenia stokesii (elliptical star coral or pineapple coral)

- Mycetophyllia ferox (rough cactus coral)

- Oculina varicosa (large ivory coral, ivory bush coral, ivory tree coral)

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