In a move to protect endangered elkhorn and staghorn corals, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit Monday in federal district court seeking greater protections from fishing for threatened coral reefs in the Caribbean.
The lawsuit asserts that the National Marine Fisheries Service, an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ignored science showing that parrotfish and other grazing fish play a key role in promoting the health of coral reefs.
“When they set catch limits for parrotfish, they didn’t do an adequate examination of the impact on the reef,” said Miyoko Sakashita, Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans director.
According to Sakashita, this shortcoming will impact elkhorn and staghorn corals. Both are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“Corals are competing with algae, and without a robust population of parrotfish, the algae are going to win,” Sakashita said. “But wise management of our reefs can keep algae in check and promote both healthy corals and healthy fish.”
The press release indicates excessive algal growth threatens the health of Caribbean reefs, choking out corals and degrading the habitat that other reef creatures — such as fish, sea turtles and lobsters — depend on.
Fish, especially parrotfish, that graze on algae around coral reefs play a key function in providing suitable habitat for corals to settle and build those reefs.
Fish populations, including the parrotfish that are the subject of this lawsuit, have been overfished in the Caribbean. Managing the overfishing of parrotfish will help corals recover and become more resilient to other threats, including global warming and ocean acidification.
“The Caribbean’s coral reefs are already in deep trouble,” Sakashita said, “and reducing the parrotfish that help them stay healthy only makes matters worse.”
“If we don’t take steps now to safeguard the creatures that keep these vital reefs alive, we risk losing all of it.”
According to the lawsuit, the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Endangered Species Act by finding that the targeted fishing for parrotfish would not jeopardize already imperiled corals or “adversely modify” their critical habitat.
NOAA spokesman Allison Garrett said the agency could not comment because the matter is in litigation.
She forwarded information that said the catch limits for St. Croix stand at 240,000 pounds a year. For St. Thomas-St. John, the number is 42,500 pounds per year. The catching of blue, midnight and rainbow parrotfish is banned, but catching other species is allowed.
The press release indicates elkhorn and staghorn corals were once the dominant reef-building corals in the Caribbean but that they are now perilously close to extinction. Corals suffer from a variety of threats, including pollution, global warming and ocean acidification. A key threat to corals, however, continues to be overfishing and competition with algae.
The corals have declined by more than 90 percent since the 1970s. In 2006, the two corals were protected under the Endangered Species Act in response to a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity.