(CN) – The Trump administration agreed Wednesday to determine by this summer whether it will extend federal wildlife protections to Hawaii’s cauliflower coral reef.
The agreement, filed in federal court in Honolulu, comes after the Center for Biological Diversity sued claiming the National Marine Fisheries Service fails to protect the coral under the Endangered Species Act.
In its federal complaint, the conservation group said Hawaii’s cauliflower coral has been devastated by ocean warming.
Warming oceans have caused widespread bleaching of the coral, whose populations declined by 36% between 1999 and 2012, according to the conservation group. A global coral-bleaching between 2014 and 2017 killed millions of coral on hundreds of reefs from Hawaii to the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.
Hawaii’s bushy cauliflower coral is typically green, pink or cream-colored, thrives in shallow water and supports a diversity of marine life around it.
The agency, an office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, announced in 2018 the coral species could be eligible for Endangered Species Act protections but failed to complete its decision process, prompting the center to sue this past October.
Maxx Phillips, the center’s Hawaii director, said in statement time is running out to protect the coral and save portions of it already destroyed by climate change-induced ocean warming.
“The Trump administration can’t keep stalling decisions to protect cauliflower coral and other vulnerable species,” said Phillips. “Hawaii’s coral reefs urgently need protection. Cauliflower coral, which is called ko’a in Hawaiian, will only be here for future generations if we take care of it now.”
Cauliflower coral has played a critical role in protecting Hawaii’s shorelines by expanding reefs and providing habitat to fish and crab species, according to the center’s lawsuit, which adds that global reef species could face severe decimation by 2100 if climate change isn’t curbed.
But cutting carbon emissions is only part of the plan to protect coral, conservationists say, noting the species has also been damaged by land-based pollution, sedimentation, coastal construction and military activity.
If cauliflower coral is listed under the Endangered Species Act, federal rules should mitigate any ongoing loss, the center said in the statement.
A 2006 effort by the center to secure protections under the Endangered Species Act led to federal protections for elkhorn and staghorn corals.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has until June 30 to make its decision.