Miami-Dade County

U.S. designates 20 rare corals as threatened

Federal officials have deemed 20 kinds of rare coral threatened and added them to the endangered species list this week.

The number falls far short of the 66 reef-building corals the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed in 2012 after an environmental group asked the government to more aggressively protect coral. In its announcement Wednesday, NOAA said a surge in research on climate change and coral habitat helped pare down the number.

Of the seven Florida corals considered, five — the lobed star, pillar, rough cactus, mountainous and boulder star corals — were listed.

“That designation will give the corals an important safety net,” said Shaye Wolf, science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which asked for 83 corrals to be protected in 2009. “But we’re also disappointed that many of the corals that needed protection didn’t get it today.”

Reefs, in drastic decline worldwide, provide valuable habitat, help protect coasts and reduce carbon dioxide, a chief factor in rising sea temperatures.

Choosing only 20 corals “doesn’t indicate that coral reefs are any less vulnerable than we thought they were, it just indicates NOAA is taking measured steps towards more widespread legal protections,” said University of Miami coral expert Andrew Baker.

As part of the listing, the agency will work to restore the coral, including tending coral nurseries off the coast of South Florida, a press release said. The designation also puts a bigger burden on federal agencies not to allow action that could harm the threatened species, said NOAA fisheries biologist Stephania Bolden.

“So if John Public wants to build a dock, and the Army Corps of Engineers wants to give him a permit, the Corps comes to us and we would have to say: ‘Ooh, that is not a good idea. Move it over here where there are no corals,’ ” she said.

But Baker warned that more needs to be done, particularly with major marine construction work like the dredging for Port Miami, a project that drew warnings from the state this month after inspectors discovered sediment from the dig had killed some coral.

“In Florida, these ecosystems are on their knees and yet we are giving them no quarter,” he said.

Miami Herald staff writer Cammy Clark contributed to this report.