Group Plans Suit Against Bush Administration for Ignoring Global Warming Threat to Coral Habitat

For Immediate Release

Center for Biological Diversity
Contact: 

Miyoko Sakashita, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 436-9682 x 308 or (510) 845-6703 (cell)

Group Plans Suit Against Bush Administration for Ignoring Global Warming Threat to Coral Habitat

Federal Protection of Coral Habitat in Florida and the Caribbean Falls Short

SAN FRANCISCO - The Center for Biological Diversity on Wednesday will give
the Bush administration official notice of its intent file a lawsuit for
illegally excluding global warming and ocean acidification threats from a
new rule protecting habitat for elkhorn and staghorn corals. The federal
government announced today that it will designate almost 3,000 square miles
of reef area off the coasts of Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands as critical
habitat under the Endangered Species Act for the threatened corals. The new
rule, to be published in Wednesday’s Federal Register, was required
by a court-approved settlement of a 2007 lawsuit brought by the Center.

Although
the polar bear has gained more notoriety, elkhorn coral and staghorn coral —
which were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2006
— have the dubious honor of being the first species protected under
the Endangered Species Act due to threats to their survival primarily
caused by global warming. The law requires that when a species is listed
under the Act, the federal government must protect habitat that is
essential to its survival and recovery. In the new critical-habitat rule,
the federal government designated important areas to be protected for the
corals, but created a giant loophole that disregards the primary threats to
coral habitat: elevated seawater temperatures and ocean acidification.

“The
critical-habitat rule exposes the Bush agenda to ignore global warming,
while rising temperatures are driving corals extinct,” said Miyoko
Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The
rule shows the double standard of the Bush administration. On one hand, the
law required the federal government to identify areas to protect for the
threatened corals. On the other hand, the administration skirted the real
threats to coral habitat, global warming and ocean acidification, by
inserting language into the rule that carves out an exception for those
threats. It is not only irrational, but it is illegal under the Endangered
Species Act.”

Once
the most abundant and important reef-building corals in Florida and the
Caribbean, staghorn and elkhorn corals have declined by more than 90
percent in many areas, mainly as a result of disease and
“bleaching,” an often-fatal stress response to abnormally high
water temperatures in which corals expel the symbiotic algae that give them
color. The rising temperature of the ocean as a result of global warming is
the single greatest threat to these two coral species, as well as coral
reefs more generally worldwide. A related threat, ocean acidification,
caused by the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide, impairs the
ability of corals to build their protective skeletons. Scientists have
predicted that most of the world’s coral reefs will disappear by
midcentury due to global warming and ocean acidification under a
business-as-usual emissions scenario.

“Critical
habitat protection can be an important factor leading to the recovery of
our coral reefs, because changes to the ocean habitat are some of the
primary threats to the corals,” Sakashita said. “This rule,
however, misses the mark by ignoring the simple fact that carbon dioxide
pollution is degrading coral habitat and killing coral reefs.”

Once
an area is designated as critical habitat, the Endangered Species Act
requires federal agencies to ensure that any activities they authorize do
not destroy or adversely modify that habitat. Federal authorizations resulting
in substantial greenhouse gas emissions should be subject to this
prohibition. While today’s critical habitat rule properly identifies
important coral areas off Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands for
increased legal protection, the rule bizarrely and illegally states that
elevated water temperatures will not be analyzed as a factor impacting
critical habitat.

The Center for Biological Diversity on Wednesday
will file an official 60-day notice letter to the Bush administration outlining
the Center’s intent to sue over the Administration’s misguided
critical-habitat rule.

More
information regarding the elkhorn
and staghorn corals is available at: www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/invertebrates/staghorn_coral/index.html.

Photos
are also available for use with attribution to photographers: www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/invertebrates/staghorn_coral/coral_images/.

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The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with 200,000 members and online activists dedicated to protecting endangered species and wild places. www.biologicaldiversity.org

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