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Dying coral's economic ripple in Florida

By CHRISTINE STAPLETON

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Updated: 6:45 a.m. Monday, April 23, 2012

Posted: 11:22 p.m. Sunday, April 22, 2012

See original article.

Topping the list of 56 corals expected to become extinct by the end of the century are five found off South Florida, according to a 581-page study released last week by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Several other Caribbean corals often found on South Florida reefs are high on the list of corals that will see a serious decline by the end of the century, according to the study commissioned by the service, which is considering 82 species of coral for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Although the research has been largely ignored outside the realm of marine biology, some local experts say the findings are disturbing. From fishing and dive charters to restaurants serving stone crabs, the economic chain reaction that would be caused by the demise of South Florida's reefs would be devastating.

Without the reefs to break the waves, storm surges would be more catastrophic. South Florida beaches would erode, threatening tourism and beachfront real estate. There would be no fish to support the diving, fishing, boating and restaurant industries. Tens of thousands of workers, from lifeguards to commercial fishermen, would lose their jobs.

"In South Florida the economic impact of the reefs has been estimated at $6 billion annually," said Dr. Richard Dodge, dean of the Ocean Center at Nova Southeastern University, which is building one of the world's largest coral research labs. "We know what happens when a species goes extinct : It doesn't come back."

Achieving protection under the Endangered Species Act is a long, complicated process. Assessing the population size of a land-based species is difficult. Assessing the viability of a species that lives only in the ocean and often in its remote, deep areas can be daunting.

According to the fisheries service, the assessment of Caribbean and Pacific corals is the most complex listing process it has undertaken.

"It is a big challenge the agency is facing," said Margaret Miller, an ecologist at the service's offices in Miami, who participated in the review. "It's somewhat new territory we're going into."

The process has been controversial. In October 2009 the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization in California, filed a petition with the service to review 82 vulnerable corals for endangered species protection . Dissatisfied with the pace of the service's response and failure to meet deadlines, the group filed three notices of intent to sue.

"I think after looking at the report, the science is clear: There is a really serious threat to survival of these corals," said Miyoko Sakashita, the center's oceans director. In recent decades, she said, " some corals in the Caribbean have declined upwards of 90 percent."

The service is accepting public comment until July 31 and will decide by Dec. 1 whether any of the species under review should receive protection.

The status report examines common threats to coral - storms, ship groundings, nutrient loading, predators such as lionfish - and concluded the most serious threats were ocean warming, disease and ocean acidification caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In South Florida, and especially the Florida Keys, warmer-than-­normal water temperatures re­cently have caused extensive bleaching, a fatal malady. Florida's reef tract, which runs from northern Palm Beach County through the Dry Tortugas, is home to the only corals ever protected under the Endangered Species Act: staghorn and elkhorn.

How much protection the designation actually provides is questionable. On land it is much easier to establish and protect the critical habitat of an endangered or threatened species using signs, fences and public service ads that identify the species.

But merely defining the territory where staghorn and elkhorn live has proved a challenge. Originally, the National Marine Fisheries Service declared the corals' critical habitat to run from the Dry Tortugas north through Palm Beach County.

The critical habitat designation means any building, renourishment or development project along the shore would have to prove it would not damage the corals before obtaining a permit.

The town of Palm Beach, which frequently replenishes the sand on its beaches, contested the boundary. Federal officials reduced the size of the critical habitat and moved the boundary south to the Boynton Inlet.

"It's not the be-all, end-all," Miller said of protections provided under the Endangered Species Act. Still, the protection raises public awareness and fosters collaboration between agencies and foreign governments, she said.

That type of collaboration will be seen this weekend during the annual Lauderdale Air Show, when dozens of boats that come to view the event are expected to anchor offshore, in the middle of critical habitat for the staghorn and elkhorn coral.

In March, representatives from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, state Department of Environmental Protection, Federal Aviation Administration, Broward County, Nova Southeastern University and U.S. Coast Guard met twice to create a plan to protect the coral.

The agencies established a safety zone where anchoring is prohibited.

The event sponsor will install mooring balls and markers and advertise the warnings and instructions on radio, in fliers and with postings at boat ramps. Navigational coordinates are available at www.

lauderdaleairshow.com .

The website also explains the penalties for violating the Endangered Species Act or damaging sea grass or coral: a civil fine of $25,000 and/or criminal penalty of $50,000, along with up to one year in jail.

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