(CN) – Hawaiian cauliflower coral is one step closer to federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to the initial review released Wednesday by the National Marine Fisheries Service of a petition sponsored by the Center for Biological Diversity.
Nicknamed cauliflower coral, Pocillopora meandrina is often pink, green, or cream-colored and recognized by its branching colonies. Called Ko’a in Hawaiian, the coral is abundant on rocky reefs throughout the Indo-Pacific and eastern Pacific Ocean.
“Information presented in the petition and other readily available information in our files indicate that the most important threat to P. meandrina across its range currently and in the future, and to the Indo-Pacific reef coral communities of which P. meandrina is a part, is ocean warming and subsequent warming-induced coral bleaching and mortality,” the report said.
Between 2014 and 2015, cauliflower coral was one of many species impacted by severe bleaching events—in which single-cell organisms called zooxanthellae that live inside the coral structure and give it pigment are expelled. Sometimes the zooxanthellae can resettle in the coral, other times the organism dies.
Subsequent surveys of Hanauma Bay on Oahu in 2016 recorded evidence of bleaching in 64 percent of P. meandrina colonies, while 1.3 percent “suffered total postbleaching mortality.” On the western coast of Big Island, 49.6 percent of all live coral cover was lost.
“Protecting corals ultimately requires reducing global temperature increases by drastically cutting fossil fuel emissions. The cauliflower coral is also threatened locally by land-based pollution, sedimentation and physical disturbance caused by human activities,” said the Center for Biological Diversity in a press release.
If cauliflower coral is listed under the Endangered Species Act, it will ensure “that any federal activity that’s funded or permitted by federal agencies that may affect that coral would need to go through a consultation and mitigate the impacts to the coral,” said Miyoko Sakashita, Oceans Department programs director at the Center for Biological Diversity in an interview with Courthouse News Service.
“There sometimes are misunderstandings that it will stop people from being able to fish or go and stop people from being able to use the beaches or canoe over the waters, but that’s not what the act does. Its main mechanism is to look at federal activities and make sure those are not harming the corals,” Sakashita said.
The Center for Biological Diversity previously helped petition for the first species of coral to be protected by the Endangered Species Act in 2006. Twenty more coral species were added in 2014.
“We find that listing P. meandrina across its range may be warranted based on the threat of ocean warming alone,” Rauch wrote. “During the status review, we will determine whether P. meandrina is in danger of extinction (endangered) or likely to become so (threatened) throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”
For the next 60 days, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will accept public and expert commentary through its website on the potential classification of the coral. The agency is expected to release a final decision within a year.