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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Sea Level Rise Threatens Two Florida Species

WASHINGTON (CN) - In separate actions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service addressed listing concerns for two Florida species threatened by sea level rise, pollution and loss of habitat. On Tuesday, the agency finalized the endangered listing for the Florida bristle fern, and proposed the Suwannee River moccasinshell mussel for a threatened listing status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Both listing actions were prompted by a 2011 settlement agreement between the agency and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and its allies, that mandated overdue listing decisions for hundreds of species be completed within a six-year period. The mussel was identified as a candidate species in 1994, and the Florida bristle fern was identified as a candidate species in 2009.

The fern is found in only six small populations covering a combined total area of 155 square feet, even though some are separated by 250 miles, according the listing proposal published last year.

Climate change and the resulting rising sea levels are impacting plants, animals and habitats in Florida. The bristle fern, which gets it name from the bristly growths that jut from the spore-producing structures, lives in low-lying areas and are at risk from storm surges, hurricanes and sea level rise. The porous limestone in many areas of Florida means that soil as well as freshwater sources and groundwater could become saltier. The plants that provide the canopy for the shade the ferns require could also be affected by the increased salinity.

"The Florida bristle fern is a stunning example of Florida's resiliency, but it needs our help," Jaclyn Lopez, CBD's Florida director, said. "Endangered Species Act listing will help ensure the fern survives sea-level rise."

The two-inch long mussel is only found in the Suwannee River Basin. The biggest threats to the mussel are groundwater pumping, pollution and habitat loss, but saltwater encroachment due to rising sea levels is also of concern for this freshwater species, according to the listing proposal. "Saltwater encroachment, as a result of rising sea levels, has the potential to impact freshwater habitats in the lower reaches of coastal rivers," the agency said.

Sea level rise appears to be accelerating, and, although there is a range of estimates, recent studies suggest that global mean sea level will rise at least .66 feet, and possibly to 6.6 feet by 2100, according to the action.

"Endangered Species Act protection is the best hope for saving the Suwannee moccasinshell from extinction," Tierra Curry, a senior scientist with the CBD, said. "And protecting this small freshwater mussel will also help protect water quality for people."

Comments on the proposal to list the Suwannee mussel as a threatened species are due by Dec. 7. The final listing of the bristle fern as an endangered species is effective Nov. 5.

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