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Enviros Plan Suit Over Agency Foot-Dragging

WASHINGTON (CN) - An environmentalist group is poised to sue the federal fisheries service for failing to promptly act on listing decisions for petitioned at-risk species, as legally required. The WildEarth Guardians issued the warning to the National Marine Fisheries Service, under the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, in response to the agency's slow response on the group's 2013 petition to list 81 marine species or distinct population segments.

"It's the Fisheries Service's job to protect imperiled species, but the agency is failing to safeguard at-risk species in a timely manner," Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for the WildEarth Guardians, said. "Rare species such as the Caribbean electric ray and the porbeagle shark continue to decline while the Fisheries Service drags its feet."

The Endangered Species Act outlines a strict time table for listing petitioned species. First, when a species is petitioned for consideration, the listing agency evaluates the species and posts a 90-day notice of review that identifies species that may meet the definition of threatened or endangered. A 12-month status review is initiated for those species, and the agency collects information used in making a determination to list or to withdraw the species from consideration. If a species meets the definition of threatened or endangered, it is proposed for listing, and that action is to be finalized within 12 months, according to a document published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the fisheries service's sister agency responsible for listing land-based species. The timeline is the same regardless of which agency is involved.

The embattled USFWS is currently addressing listings for hundreds of back-logged species under a court-ordered settlement agreement's mandated multi-year workplan. The Guardians were one of the conservation groups instrumental in forging the settlement agreement.

Of the WildEarth Guardian's 81 petitioned marine species, the fisheries service's initial 90-day reviews found that only 27 species might merit listing status. The agency then decided to address those 27 species according to taxonomic groupings, as the petition included three hagfishes, three sea snakes, 22 shark-family species, five marine mammals, 10 skates and rays, 15 bony fishes, and 23 corals.

Three coral species and the dusky sea snake were finally listed as endangered last October, an Indonesian cardinalfish was listed as a threatened species in January of this year and a distinct population segment of the coelacanth was listed as threatened last month. Three eastern Atlantic angelsharks, six South American shark-family species, and gulf, island and Nassau groupers have been proposed for listing, but the determinations have not yet been finalized. Three of the 27 considered species have been dropped from the listing process because the agency decided they had sufficient protections already in place, and three species were dropped because they did not meet the definition of a distinct population segment.

According to the Guardian's announcement of intent to sue, the fisheries service is overdue on making 12-month decisions for five species, and for publishing a final listing rule for the Nassau grouper, which was proposed for listing in September of 2014.

"Protecting our oceans is a race against time," Jones said. "Recent findings that 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef is suffering from bleaching underscore the urgency of taking action now to protect our oceans."

The five species that have not been addressed since their initial 90-day review, nearly three years since they were petitioned, are the Caribbean electric ray, the porbeagle shark, Hector's dolphin, the common guitarfish, and the blackchin guitarfish.

Noting that over 50 percent of all life on earth is found in the oceans, and that more than half of marine species are possibly at risk of extinction by 2100 without significant intervention, WildEarth claims the fisheries service "largely fails to protect marine species under the ESA. Of the 2,258 species protected under the Act, only 139 (about 6 percent) are marine species," according to the Guardian's announcement.

When asked for comment, Kathleen Brogan, spokesperson for the Service said, "NOAA Fisheries is making expeditious progress on these actions. We can not discuss the notice of intent."

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