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Court: Federal Government Must Protect Caribbean Coral Reefs

Better monitoring of fisheries required
October 14, 2013
San Juan, Puerto Rico —

A federal district court has ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the law by allowing fishing for depleted parrotfish and other algae-eating reef fish species without properly monitoring the fishery’s impacts on rare corals that depend on healthy fish populations. The decision came in response to an Endangered Species Act suit filed in January 2012 by Earthjustice on behalf of two conservation groups (CORALations and the Center for Biological Diversity), and Mary Adele Donnelly. Local counsel for Earthjustice on this case was Miguel Sarriera, who has represented a number of groups battling for environmental protection throughout Puerto Rico.

The court determined the Fisheries Service must do a better job monitoring the effects of commercial fishing on elkhorn and staghorn coral in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. These coral species are protected by the Endangered Species Act and serve as essential habitat for fish and other marine species. Parrotfish protect these corals by grazing on algae that otherwise would smother the reef; removing the fish allows the algae to dominate reef systems and deny corals the space needed to grow.

Elkhorn (above) and staghorn coral, essential habitat for fish and other marine species, have declined by as much as 98–99 percent since the 1970s.

Photo Courtesy of August Rode

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In his decision, Senior Judge Salvador E. Casellas ruled that the Fisheries Service’s monitoring plan was invalid because, as a baseline matter, the agency didn’t even know how many parrotfish were present to begin with and in any event had not committed to monitoring the impacts of the fishery on the parrotfish themselves. Under these circumstances, the court concluded the Service had illegally failed to establish an adequate procedure for verifying whether its fishing plan was preventing excessive harm to the threatened elkhorn and staghorn corals.

“In the Caribbean, we have two big industries, fishing and tourism. Healthy coral reefs support both industries, but they have been dying for decades. Local communities are working with fishermen to successfully restore their reefs; farming corals on nurseries and transplanting them to natural reef in small protected areas,” said Mary Ann Lucking, CORALations. “The ruling compels government to revisit the failures of the balanced fishery management approach in general versus an ecosystem based approach, like community designated marine protected areas.”

"We are concerned that NMFS continues to open new fisheries without safeguards for protected species," said Mary Adele Donnelly. "The court has demanded the Fisheries Service looks before leaping into yet another ecological disaster."

Parrotfish, which graze on algae around coral reefs, play a key function in providing suitable habitat for corals to settle and build Caribbean reefs.

Photo Courtesy of NPS

“We know that corals face increasing threats from climate change and disease. Keeping a healthy, diverse population of algae-eaters on the reef is crucial to keeping coral reefs healthy,” said Andrea Treece, of Earthjustice.

“The corals in the Caribbean are dying—anyone can see it. This decision means that there will be enough parrotfish around for a healthy coral reef that could then become home for even more precious reef wildlife,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Parrotfish eat algae that can otherwise smother coral habitat. U.S. Caribbean reefs already suffer from excessive algae cover, a situation exacerbated by scooping out the grazing fish necessary to hold back algal growth. This situation leads to what scientists call a “death spiral” in which the removal of algae-eaters like parrotfish leads to increased algae and decreased coral, which in turn results in fewer fish and other reef creatures.

Not so long ago, elkhorn and staghorn corals were the main reef-building coral species in the Caribbean. Yet these species have declined by as much as 98–99 percent since the 1970s thanks to stressors including overfishing, disease, and climate change. As the corals decline, so does quality habitat for fish and other creatures.

Read the court decision.

Contacts

Mary Ann Lucking, CORALations, (787) 556-6234

Miguel Sarriera, (787) 630-8319

Marydele Donnelly, Sea Turtle Conservancy, (410) 750-1561

Andrea Treece, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2089

Miyoko Sakashita, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 632-5308

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.