WASHINGTON (CN) – Elkhorn and staghorn coral in the Caribbean could be in trouble if federal approval of reef fishing stands, environmentalists say.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Mary Donnelly, with the Sea Turtle Conservancy, claim the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.
The plaintiffs seek judicial review of an Oct. 4, 2011, “Biological Opinion for the Continued Authorization of Reef Fish Fishing Managed under the Reef Fish
Fishery Management Plan (FMP) of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
They challenge the NMFS’s declaration that its authorization of reef fishing “is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of elkhorn and staghorn coral, which are listed as ‘threatened’ under the ESA. In addition, plaintiffs challenge the failure by NMFS to ensure that its authorization of the fishery will not destroy or adversely modify critical habitat for these two species of coral.
“NMFS’s continued authorization of targeted fishing for parrotfish and other grazing fish that play a key role in promoting the health of coral reefs poses substantial risk to elkhorn and staghorn coral. Such unsustainable fishing fosters algal overgrowth of coral reefs, crowding out reef-building corals and causing substantial harm to the critical habitat upon which the elkhorn and staghorn corals depend for their survival and recovery.”
According to the federal complaint, the NMFS’s biological opinion authorizes the continued harvest of parrotfish around those areas despite a finding that parrotfish in the U.S. Caribbean are being overfished.
By attacking parrotfish populations, such fishing would threaten coral reefs as well – particularly the elkhorn and staghorn varieties, given their feeding and reproduction challenges – by removing fish that prevent coral-killing algae overgrowth, the environmentalists say.
“Fishing is the most widespread exploitative activity on coral reefs and poses significant threats to the biodiversity and condition of marine ecosystems. Fishing modifies species interactions such as competition and predation by altering structural complexity,” according to the complaint.
The groups say the opinion violates the Endangered Species Act in a multitude of ways, most notably by taking into account only the incremental impact the fishery would have on coral, instead of considering all threats against the tiny animals.
They also claim the opinion disregards the best available science, fails to connect the information it presented with its “no jeopardy” and “no adverse modification” conclusions, and is arbitrary and capricious in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act.
“In addition, the defendants’ actions and failures have harmed the plaintiffs’ interests in the health of the coral reef ecosystems of which elkhorn and staghorn corals are a critical part, and in the health of important species that depend upon those ecosystems, including sea turtles,” the groups say.
Fishing is not the only thing threatening coral reefs. Dust clouds floating over the Atlantic from Africa’s Sahara and Sahel regions carry harmful metals, pesticides and microorganisms into U.S. Caribbean coral reef ecosystems, National Geographic reported in 2008
The plaintiffs want the NMFS’s biological opinion vacated.
They are represented by Stephen Roady with EarthJustice.