Endangered and Threatened Species; Proposed Threatened Status for Elkhorn Coral and Staghorn Coral, 24359-24365 [05-9222]

Download as PDF Federal Register / Vol. 70, No. 88 / Monday, May 9, 2005 / Proposed Rules will incorporate biometric identifiers. Because FMCSA is no longer required to promulgate a regulation on biometric identifiers, the agency believes TSA is the agency in a better position to lead further development of biometric identifiers, thereby avoiding a potential conflict in standards adopted by each agency. The adoption of different standards and/or technologies for CDLs and a TWIC could place an unnecessary burden on States. Therefore, FMCSA is withdrawing its ANPRMs dated May 15, 1989, and March 8, 1991, on biometric identifiers. FMCSA has shared its research on biometric identifiers with TSA. FMCSA will continue to work in a collaborative effort with TSA on the development of TSA’s biometric identifier standard and the development of a TWIC. In the future, FMCSA may assess the impact of the TWIC upon the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. Issued on: April 27, 2005. Annette M. Sandberg, Administrator. [FR Doc. 05–9171 Filed 5–6–05; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 4910–EX–P DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 50 CFR Part 223 [Docket No. 050304058–5113–02; I.D. 060204C] RIN 0648–XB29 Endangered and Threatened Species; Proposed Threatened Status for Elkhorn Coral and Staghorn Coral National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce. ACTION: Proposed rule; request for comments. AGENCY: SUMMARY: We, the NMFS, have completed a comprehensive status review of elkhorn (Acropora palmata) and staghorn (A. cervicornis) corals and determined that a petitioned action to list both species is warranted. We have determined that fused-staghorn coral (A. prolifera) is a hybrid and therefore does not warrant listing. We have made our determination based on the best scientific and commercial data available and efforts being made to protect the species, and we propose to place both elkhorn and staghorn corals on the list of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as VerDate jul<14>2003 15:24 May 06, 2005 Jkt 205001 amended (ESA). We are announcing that hearings will be held at four locations in June to provide additional opportunities and formats to receive public input. DATES: Comments on this proposal must be received by August 8, 2005. See SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION for the specific public hearing dates. ADDRESSES: You may submit comments, identified by the RIN 0648–XB29, by any of the following methods: • E-mail: Acropora.Info@noaa.gov. Include Docket Number or RIN 0648– XB29 in the subject line of the message. • Mail: Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected Resources Division, NMFS, Southeast Regional Office, Protected Resources Division, 263 13th Ave. South, St. Petersburg, FL 33701. • Facsimile (fax) to: 727–824–5309. • Federal eRulemaking Portal: http:// www.regulations.gov. Follow the instructions for submitting comments. Instructions: All submissions received must include the agency name and docket number or Regulatory Information Number (RIN) for this rulemaking. • See SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION for public hearing locations. The proposed rule and status review are also available electronically at the NMFS website at http:// sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/protres.htm FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Jennifer Moore or Stephania Bolden, NMFS, at the address above or at 727– 824–5312, or Marta Nammack, NMFS, at 301–713–1401. SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: Background On March 4, 2004, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petitioned us to list elkhorn, staghorn, and fusedstaghorn corals as either threatened or endangered under the ESA and to designate critical habitat. On June 23, 2004, we made a positive 90–day finding (69 FR 34995) that CBD presented substantial information indicating that the petitioned actions may be warranted and announced the initiation of a formal status review as required by section 4(b)(3)(A) of the ESA. Concurrently, we solicited additional information from the public on these acroporid corals regarding historic and current distribution and abundance, population status and trends, areas that may qualify as critical habitat, any current or planned activities that may adversely affect them, and known conservation efforts. Additional information was requested during two public meetings held in PO 00000 Frm 00034 Fmt 4702 Sfmt 4702 24359 December 2004 on: (1) distribution and abundance; (2) areas that may qualify as critical habitat; and (3) approaches/ criteria that could be used to assess listing potential of the acroporids (e.g., viability assessment, extinction risk, etc.). In order to conduct a comprehensive status review, we convened an Atlantic Acropora Biological Review Team (BRT). The members of the BRT were a diverse group of experts in their fields, including coral biologists and ecologists; specialists in coral disease, coral monitoring and restoration, climate change, water quality, coral taxonomy; regional experts in coral abundance/distribution throughout the Caribbean Sea; and state and Federal resource managers. The comprehensive, peer-reviewed status review report developed by the BRT incorporates and summarizes the best available scientific and commercial information as of March 2005. It addresses the status of the species, the five factors identified in ESA section 4(a)(1), and current regulatory, conservation and research efforts that may yield protection to the corals. The BRT also reviewed and considered the petition and materials we received as a result of the Federal Register document (69 FR 34995) and the public meetings; substantive materials were incorporated into the status review report. Distribution and Abundance Acropora spp. are widely distributed throughout the wider Caribbean (U.S. Florida, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S.V.I.), Navassa; and Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Netherlands Antilles, Nicaragua, Panama, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela). Both elkhorn and staghorn corals used to be the most abundant and most important species on Caribbean coral reefs in terms of accretion of reef structure. In general, elkhorn and staghorn corals have the same distribution, with few exceptions. Staghorn coral’s northern extent (Broward County, Florida) is farther north than that of elkhorn coral (MiamiDade County, Florida). Relative to other corals, both have high growth rates that have allowed reef growth to keep pace with past changes in sea level. Additionally, both exhibit branching morphologies that provide important habitat for other reef organisms; no other Caribbean reef-building coral E:\FR\FM\09MYP1.SGM 09MYP1 24360 Federal Register / Vol. 70, No. 88 / Monday, May 9, 2005 / Proposed Rules species is able to fulfill these ecosystem functions. At the current reduced abundance of A. palmata and A. cervicornis, it is highly likely that both these ecosystem functions have been largely lost. The third Acropora spp. present in the Caribbean Sea is the fused-staghorn coral (A. prolifera). Although it has a history in the taxonomic literature, recent genetic research has determined that it is an F1 (i.e., first generation) hybrid between A. cervicornis and A. palmata. While there is genetic evidence that A. prolifera has backcrossed with A. cervicornis on evolutionary time scales, and it undergoes gametogenesis, there is no evidence that it interbreeds (i.e., produces sexual offspring in a cross between two A. prolifera colonies). For this reason, the BRT did not include fused-staghorn coral as a species within the status review, and we determined that it does not meet the definition of a species under the ESA. Both elkhorn and staghorn corals underwent precipitous declines in abundance in the early 1980s throughout their range, and this decline has continued. Although quantitative data on former distribution and abundance are scarce, in the few locations where quantitative data are available (i.e., Florida Keys, Dry Tortugas, Jamaica and the U.S.V.I.), declines in abundance are estimated at greater than 97 percent. Although this decline trend has been documented as continuing in the late 1990s, and even in the past 5 years in some locations, local extirpations (i.e., at the island or country scale) have not been documented. While recruitment of new colonies has been reported in various geographic locations, new recruits appear to be suffering mortality faster than they can mature (to sizes greater than 1 m in colony diameter). In a very few locations (e.g., Buck Island Reef National Monument) moderate recovery of elkhorn coral appears to be progressing. In most cases the genetic origin of the recruits, presumably from sexual reproduction, is unknown so that their contribution to the corals’ Caribbean-wide recovery remains undetermined. Analysis of the Definitions of Endangered and Threatened Species We first considered whether all three of the corals listed in the petition met the definition of ‘‘species’’ pursuant to section 3 of the ESA. The term ‘‘species’’ includes ‘‘any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife VerDate jul<14>2003 15:24 May 06, 2005 Jkt 205001 which interbreeds when mature.’’ Based on this language, a ‘‘species’’ is given its ordinary, accepted biological meaning. Species diagnoses for both elkhorn and staghorn were not debated as both species are recognized as separate taxa in the literature, have separate and discrete diagnoses and morphologies, and produce viable gametes, larvae, and successful sexual offspring. On the other hand, we carefully reviewed and deliberated on the taxonomic diagnosis for fused-staghorn coral (A. prolifera). While A. prolifera has been recognized in the taxonomic literature as a species based on morphology, it has always been rare, and little specific scientific information is available regarding its distribution, abundance, and trends. In addition, a wide range of intermediate A. prolifera morphologies exist in nature, and this further complicates in situ assessment of abundance and distribution. For the purpose of the status review, we did not consider A. prolifera a species as it does not interbreed with itself to produce viable offspring, and is therefore a hybrid for the reasons summarized below: 1. Recent scientific literature indicates that individuals of A. prolifera sampled from throughout the Caribbean region were all F1 (i.e., first generation) hybrids of A. palmata and A. cervicornis. This finding is consistent with the observed rarity of A. prolifera. There is also genetic evidence that A. prolifera has undergone rare backcrossing with the parent A. cervicornis on an evolutionary time scale. 2. Data from a single unpublished study indicate that A. prolifera does undergo gametogenesis, but there is no direct evidence that zygotes are produced due to colony rarity, or that successful sexual offspring result. 3. While it is unclear whether or not A. prolifera’s gametes are viable, it is highly unlikely that genetically distinct colonies occur within sufficient proximity to routinely accomplish successful fertilization in nature. Therefore, based on the best information available and the generally accepted biological definition of a species (consisting of related organisms capable of interbreeding to produce viable offspring), we determined that A. prolifera is a hybrid which has not been shown to interbreed when mature, and it does not constitute a species under the ESA. Furthermore, although fused-staghorn is known to have backcrossed with staghorn at some time, similar elkhorn chromosome mapping has not been conducted. Therefore, we are reluctant to identify potential genealogy of the PO 00000 Frm 00035 Fmt 4702 Sfmt 4702 fused-staghorn relative to either elkhorn or staghorn coral. Instead, we determined that the hybrid should be considered a separate entity and that individuals of this entity are not considered members of either staghorn or elkhorn coral populations. Next, we carefully examined the definitions of endangered and threatened species pursuant to section 3 of the ESA wherein: (1) ‘‘endangered species’’ is defined as ‘‘any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range;’’ and (2) ‘‘threatened species’’ is defined as ‘‘any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.’’ Corals are invertebrates, and, therefore, a listing determination must be based on the species’ status throughout ‘‘all or a significant portion’’ of its range. The only information regarding discreteness or distinctiveness of Atlantic Acropora populations is a recent study that examined genetic exchange and clonal population structure in A. palmata by sampling and genotyping colonies from eleven locations throughout its geographic range using microsatellite markers. Results indicate that populations in the eastern Caribbean (St. Vincent and the Grenadines, U.S.V.I., Curacao, and Bonaire) have experienced little or no genetic exchange with populations in the western Caribbean (Bahamas, Florida, Mexico, Panama, Navassa, and Mona Island). Puerto Rico is an area of mixing where populations show genetic contribution from both regions, though it is more closely connected with the western Caribbean. Within these regions, the degree of larval exchange appears to be asymmetrical with some locations being entirely self-recruiting and some receiving immigrants from other locations within their region. No similar information exists for A. cervicornis. These results do not indicate source or sink areas, populations that are discrete or distinct, or any other specific geographic areas within the Caribbean Sea that should be considered more or less significant than another. Because there is no evidence indicating that any elkhorn or staghorn population within the geographic range of the species is more or less important than others, we considered the entire geographic range in determining status of these species. Based on the ESA definition of an endangered species, the danger of extinction must be examined. While the number (in terms of abundance and coverage) of elkhorn and staghorn corals rangewide has precipitously declined E:\FR\FM\09MYP1.SGM 09MYP1 Federal Register / Vol. 70, No. 88 / Monday, May 9, 2005 / Proposed Rules over the last 30 years, total number of colonies and presumably individuals remains very, very large (although the absolute number of colonies or coverage is unquantified). Given the high number of colonies, the species’ large geographic range that remains intact (no evidence of range constriction), and the fact that asexual reproduction (fragmentation) provides a source for new colonies (albeit perhaps clones) which likely buffers natural demographic and environmental variability, we believe that both species retain significant potential for persistence and are at a low risk of extinction in the near term. Additionally, both elkhorn and staghorn corals have persisted through climate cooling and heating fluctuation periods over millions of years as determined by the geologic record, where other corals have gone extinct. Therefore, we have determined as a preliminary matter that neither elkhorn nor staghorn corals are in danger of extinction throughout all of their range. For many of the same reasons discussed above, we determined that both elkhorn and staghorn corals may meet the ESA definition of threatened species. First, we established that the appropriate period of time corresponding to the foreseeable future is a function of the particular kinds of threats, the life-history characteristics, and the specific habitat requirements for the species under consideration. It is also consistent with the purpose of the ESA that the timeframe for the foreseeable future be adequate to provide for the conservation and recovery of threatened species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. Given this conceptual framework and the fact that some threats such as hurricanes or major disease outbreaks can happen at anytime and other threats happen over longer periods of time (e.g., habitat degradation, global climate change), the slow-growing and late maturing aspects of the species life history, and the fact that the current decline as documented by the BRT occurred during the last 20 to 30 years, we have preliminarily determined the foreseeable future for these species to be 30 years. We then considered the following items on the timescale outlined above in evaluating the status of elkhorn and staghorn corals: 1. Recent drastic declines in abundance of both species have occurred throughout their geographic range and abundances are at historic lows; 2. Broad geographic ranges could become constricted due to local extirpations resulting from a single VerDate jul<14>2003 15:24 May 06, 2005 Jkt 205001 stochastic event (e.g., hurricanes, new disease outbreak); 3. Sexual recruitment is limited in some areas and unknown in most as fertilization success from clones is virtually zero; settlement of larvae is often unsuccessful given limited amount of appropriate habitat; 4. The Allee effect is occurring (fertilization success declines greatly as adult density declines). Based upon these facts, we believe that abundance and distribution of both elkhorn and staghorn coral are likely to become further reduced. Furthermore, a series of local extirpations are likely to occur within the next 30 years. We believe that while elkhorn and staghorn coral are not currently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range, they are likely to become so within the foreseeable future. Therefore, we propose to list them as threatened under the ESA. Analysis of Factors Affecting the Species Section 4 of the ESA (16 U.S.C. 1533) and regulations promulgated to implement the listing provisions of the ESA (50 CFR part 424) set forth the procedures for adding species to the Federal list. Section 4 requires that listing determinations be based solely on the best scientific and commercial data available, without consideration of possible economic or other impacts of such determinations. Section 4(a)(1) of the ESA provides that the Secretary of Commerce shall determine whether any species is endangered or threatened because of any of five specified factors; these factors and their relevance to the status of elkhorn and staghorn corals are analyzed below. The Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment of its Habitat or Range Seven stressors (natural abrasion and breakage, anthropogenic abrasion and breakage, sedimentation, persistent elevated temperature, competition, excessive nutrients and sea level rise) were identified as threats affecting both species through present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of their habitats or ranges. This consists of both destruction or disruption of substrate to grow on, and modification or alteration of the aquatic environment in which the corals live. Although habitat loss has occurred, to date, the range of these two species has not been reduced. However, because of the species’ extremely low abundance, local extirpations are possible in the foreseeable future, leading to a reduction in range. PO 00000 Frm 00036 Fmt 4702 Sfmt 4702 24361 Elkhorn and staghorn corals, like most corals, require hard, consolidated substrate (i.e., attached, dead coral skeleton) for their larvae to settle or fragments to reattach. When the substrate is physically disturbed, and when the attached corals are broken and reduced to unstable rubble or sediment, settlement and reattachment habitat is lost. The most common causes of natural abrasion and breakage (physical disturbance) are severe storm events, including hurricanes. Severe storms can lead to the complete destruction and mortality of entire reef zones dominated by these species as well as destruction of the habitat on which these species depend (i.e., by covering settlement, reattachment and growing surfaces with unstable rubble and sediment). These major storms have physically disrupted reefs throughout the wider Caribbean and are among the primary causes of elkhorn and staghorn coral habitat loss in certain locations. Human activity in coral reef areas is another source of abrasion and breakage (anthropogenic), and thus destruction of A. palmata and A. cervicornis habitat. These activities include boating, anchoring, fishing, recreational SCUBA diving and snorkeling, and an increasing variety of maritime construction and development activities. The shallow habitat requirements of these two species make them especially susceptible to impacts from these anthropogenic activities, which have been documented as causing effects similar to severe storms, though usually on a smaller scale. Acropora spp. also appear to be particularly sensitive to shading effects resulting from increased sediments in the water column. Because these corals are almost entirely dependent upon sunlight for nourishment, they are much more susceptible to increases in water turbidity and sedimentation than other species. Increased sediments in the water column, which have been documented to impede larval settlement, can result from, among other things, land development and run-off, dredging and disposal activities, and major storm events. Optimal water temperatures for elkhorn and staghorn coral range from 25 to 29° C, with the species being able to tolerate higher temperatures for a brief period of time (e.g., order of days to weeks depending on the magnitude of the temperature elevation). Global atmospheric air and sea temperatures have been documented as rising over the past century, and shallow reef habitats are especially vulnerable. Water with sea surface temperatures above the optimal range does not provide suitable habitat for either of the two species. E:\FR\FM\09MYP1.SGM 09MYP1 24362 Federal Register / Vol. 70, No. 88 / Monday, May 9, 2005 / Proposed Rules Because of their fast growth rates (relative to other corals) and canopyforming morphology, A. palmata and A. cervicornis are known to be competitive dominants within coral communities, in terms of their ability to overgrow other stony and soft corals. However, other types of reef benthic organisms (i.e., algae) have higher growth rates and are expected to have greater competitive ability than Acropora spp. Under current physical oceanographic conditions in shallow, coastal areas (i.e., elevated nutrients), algae are typically out-competing both Acropora spp. for space on the reef. The consequence of this competition is that less habitat is available for the two species to colonize. Nutrients are added to coral reefs from both point sources (readily identifiable inputs where pollutants are discharged to receiving surface waters from a pipe or drain) and non-point sources (inputs that occur over a wide area and are associated with particular land uses). Coral reefs have been generally considered to be nutrientlimited systems, meaning that levels of accessible nitrogen and phosphorus limit the rates of plant growth. When nutrients levels are raised in such a system, plant growth can be expected to increase, and this can yield imbalance and changes in community structure. The widespread increase in algae abundance on Caribbean corals reefs has been attributed to nutrient enrichment. Therefore, less habitat is available for elkhorn and staghorn coral larval settlement or fragment reattachment. Overutilization for Commercial, Recreational, Scientific, or Educational Purposes Only one stressor under the second factor identified in section 4(a)(1), overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes, was identified as a potential threat to elkhorn and staghorn corals: overharvest for curio/aquarium demand. Overutilization does not appear to be a significant threat to either of these two species given current regulation and management. Disease or Predation Disease was identified as the single largest cause of both elkhorn and staghorn coral mortality and decline. It is also the greatest threat to the two species’ persistence and recovery given its widespread, episodic, and unpredictable occurrence resulting in high mortality. The threat is exacerbated by the fact that disease, though clearly severe, is poorly understood in terms of etiology and possible links to anthropogenic stressors. Although the VerDate jul<14>2003 15:24 May 06, 2005 Jkt 205001 number or identity of specific disease conditions affecting Atlantic Acropora spp. and the causal factors involved are uncertain, several generalizations are evident. First, both total number of described Acropora spp. specific diseases as well as the prevalence and/ or geographic range of impact have increased over the past decade, and the trend is expected to continue. Second, disease has had, and continues to have, major ongoing impacts on population abundance and colony condition of both elkhorn and staghorn coral. Diseases affecting these species may prevent or delay their recovery in the wider Caribbean. Finally, diseases constitute an ongoing, major threat about which specific mechanistic and predictive understanding is largely lacking, thus precluding effective control or management strategies. Acropora spp. are also subject to invertebrate (e.g., polychaete, mollusk, echinoderm) and vertebrate (fish) predation, but ‘‘plagues’’ of coral predators such as the Indo-Pacific crown-of-thorns outbreaks (Acanthaster planci) have not been described in the Atlantic. Predation may directly cause mortality or injuries that lead to invasion of other biota (e.g., algae, boring sponges). The threat of predation, while apparently much less than that of disease, is also contributing to the status of these species. Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms We evaluated existing regulatory mechanisms (fourth factor identified in ESA section 4(a)(1)) currently in place and consisting of enforceable provisions which are directed at managing threats to elkhorn and staghorn corals. Most existing regulatory mechanisms are not specific to the two species, but were promulgated to manage corals or coral reefs in general. While the impact of many stressors were determined to be slightly reduced with the implementation of regulations, none were totally abated. For example, the Fishery Management Plan for Coral and Coral Reefs of the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic (under the MagnusonStevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act) protects all corals from harvest, sale and destruction on the seabed in U.S. Federal waters during fishing related activities. In some cases, elkhorn and staghorn corals are incidentally destroyed during fishing practices, and, therefore, the regulation does not fully abate the threat from damaging fishing practices. The major threats to these species’ persistence (i.e., disease, elevated temperature and hurricanes) are severe, PO 00000 Frm 00037 Fmt 4702 Sfmt 4702 unpredictable, and have increased over the past 3 decades. At current levels of knowledge, the threats are unmanageable, and there is no apparent indication that these trends will change in the foreseeable future. No existing regulatory mechanisms are currently in place, or expected to be in place in the foreseeable future, to control or prevent these major threats to the two species. In the meantime, managing some of the stressors determined to be less severe (e.g., anchoring, vessel groundings, point and non-point source nutrients, sedimentation) may assist in decreasing the rate of A. palmata and A. cervicornis decline by enhancing coral condition and decreasing synergistic stress effects. Other Natural or Manmade Factors Affecting the Continued Existence of the Species We identified eleven stressors that affect the status of elkhorn and staghorn corals as a result of other natural or manmade factors (fifth factor identified in ESA section 4(a)(1)): elevated temperature, competition, elevated nutrients, sedimentation, sea level rise, abrasion and breakage, contaminants, loss of genetic diversity, African dust, elevated carbon dioxide, and sponge boring. Many of these threats are the same as those identified in the first factor (habitat) because the same mechanism can cause direct impacts to the organisms in addition to destroying or disrupting their habitat. Impacts from some of these stressors are complex, resulting in synergistic habitat impacts (first factor identified in ESA section 4(a)(1)). Elevation of the typical sea surface temperature in tropical and subtropical oceans stresses Acropora spp. Global air and sea surface temperatures have risen over the past 100 years and shallow reef habitats are especially vulnerable. When exposed to elevated temperatures, elkhorn and staghorn corals expel the symbiotic algae (bleaching) on which they depend for a photosynthetic contribution to their energy budget, enhancement of calcification, and color. Temperature induced bleaching affects growth, maintenance, reproduction, and survival of these two species. As summarized in the status review report, bleaching has been documented as the source of extensive elkhorn and staghorn mortality in numerous locations throughout their range. The extent of bleaching is a function of the intensity of the temperature elevation and the duration of the event. Along with elevated temperature, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased in the last century and there is no apparent evidence that the trend E:\FR\FM\09MYP1.SGM 09MYP1 Federal Register / Vol. 70, No. 88 / Monday, May 9, 2005 / Proposed Rules will not continue. As atmospheric carbon dioxide is dissolved in surface seawater, seawater becomes more acidic, shifting the balance of inorganic carbon species away from carbon dioxide and carbonate toward bicarbonate. This shift decreases the ability of corals to calcify because corals are thought to use carbonate (not bicarbonate) to build their aragonite skeletons. Experiments have shown the reduction of calcification in response to elevated carbon dioxide levels. Rapid sea level rise was identified as a potential threat to these species; however, under current conditions, we conclude that this stressor is not affecting either of the two species’ status. As discussed above, increased sediments in the water column can result from, among other things, land development and run-off, dredging and disposal activities, and major storm events. In addition to the habitat impacts, sedimentation has been shown to cause direct physiological stress to elkhorn and staghorn corals. Direct deposition of sediments on coral tissue and shading due to sediments in the water column have both caused tissue death in these species. In addition to the habitat impacts described above, natural and anthropogenic sources of abrasion and breakage (i.e., severe storms, vessel groundings, fishing debris) cause direct mortality to elkhorn and staghorn corals. Their branching morphology make them particularly susceptible to breakage. The creation of fragments through breakage is a natural means of asexual reproduction for these species. However, the fragments must encounter suitable habitat to be able to reattach and create a new colony. Under current conditions, suitable habitat is often not available, and entire elkhorn and staghorn reefs have been destroyed after these events. Many of the threats identified as contributing to the status of elkhorn and staghorn coral are minor in intensity, but have an impact nonetheless because of their extremely reduced population sizes. Direct competition with other species, skeleton bioerosion by clionid sponges, and effects from African dust all are minor threats, but they are exacerbating the species’ current status. The severity of all of the threats (natural or manmade) ranges from high (e.g., temperature) to low (e.g., sponge boring). Some stressors (e.g., contaminants and loss of genetic diversity) are known to be threats to these two species, but their effect on the status is undetermined and understudied. VerDate jul<14>2003 15:24 May 06, 2005 Jkt 205001 Summary and Synthesis of Analysis of the Factors Identified in ESA Section 4(a)(1) We determined that the major factors affecting the two species are disease, elevated temperature, and hurricanes. Other factors identified as contributing to the status of the species, given their extremely reduced population sizes, are sedimentation, anthropogenic abrasion and breakage, competition, excessive nutrients, sea level rise, predation, contaminants, loss of genetic diversity, African dust, elevated carbon dioxide levels, and sponge boring. Basis for Proposed Determination In accordance with section 4(b)(1)(A) of the ESA, the determination that the petitioned action is warranted was based on the best scientific and commercial data available. As provided in 50 CFR 434.13, we used scientific and commercial publications, administrative reports, maps, and information received from experts on the subject. As further required by section 4(b)(2), we considered those efforts being made by States or foreign nations to protect or conserve the two species. As discussed above, the major threats to the two species are currently unmanageable, and, therefore, these efforts do not alter the threatened status of elkhorn and staghorn corals. Finally, section 4(b)(1)(B) of the ESA, requires us to give consideration to species which (1) have been designated as requiring protection from unrestricted commerce by any foreign nation, or (2) have been identified as in danger of extinction, or likely to become so within the foreseeable future, by any state agency or by any agency of a foreign nation. All corals are listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which regulates international trade of species to ensure survival. Additionally, all corals, including elkhorn and staghorn corals, are protected under the U.S.V.I. Indigenous and Endangered Species Act of 1990, and both species have been listed recently in the ‘‘red book’’ of threatened marine invertebrates of Colombia by a technical commission coordinated by the Ministry of the Environment. Acropora cervicornis was considered as a critically endangered species in Colombia and A. palmata was included as endangered. Thus, the proposed listing is consistent with foreign and international actions taken with regard to these species. PO 00000 Frm 00038 Fmt 4702 Sfmt 4702 24363 Similarity of Appearance of the Hybrid We also considered the risk to elkhorn and staghorn corals of not listing fusedstaghorn coral pursuant to ESA section 4(e), Similarity of Appearance Cases. We determined that listing fusedstaghorn coral under this provision is not warranted given its rarity, the fact that it is almost always found amongst colonies of other Acropora spp., and the conclusion by the BRT that the threat of overharvest by curio/aquarium demand is well regulated. Effects of Listing Conservation measures provided for species listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA include recovery actions (16 U.S.C. 1533(f)), critical habitat designations, Federal agency consultation requirements (16 U.S.C. 1536), and prohibitions on taking (16 U.S.C. 1538). Recognition of the species’ plight through listing promotes conservation actions by Federal and state agencies, private groups, and individuals. Should the proposed listing be made final, a recovery program would be implemented, and critical habitat may be designated. We believe that to be successful, protective regulations and recovery programs for elkhorn and staghorn corals will need to be developed in the context of conserving aquatic ecosystem health. Federal, state and the private sectors will need to cooperate to conserve the listed elkhorn and staghorn corals and the ecosystems upon which they depend. Service Policies on Role of Peer Review On July 1, 1994, we and FWS published a policy regarding peer review of scientific data (59 FR 34270). The intent of this peer review policy is to ensure that listings are based on the best scientific and commercial data available. Prior to a final listing, we formally solicit expert opinions and analyses on one or more specific questions or assumptions. This solicitation process may take place during a public comment period on any proposed rule or draft recovery plan, during the status review of a species under active consideration for listing, or at any other time deemed necessary to clarify a scientific question. The status review was peer reviewed by six experts in the field, with their substantive comments incorporated in the final status review Critical Habitat Critical habitat is defined in section 3 of the ESA (16 U.S.C. 1532(3)) as: (1) the specific areas within the geographical area occupied by a species, at the time E:\FR\FM\09MYP1.SGM 09MYP1 24364 Federal Register / Vol. 70, No. 88 / Monday, May 9, 2005 / Proposed Rules it is listed in accordance with the ESA, on which are found those physical or biological features (a) essential to the conservation of the species and (b) that may require special management considerations or protection; and (2) specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by a species at the time it is listed upon a determination that such areas are essential for the conservation of the species. ‘‘Conservation’’ means the use of all methods and procedures needed to bring the species to the point at which listing under the ESA is no longer necessary. Section 4(a)(3)(a) of the ESA (16 U.S.C. 1533(a)(3)(A)) requires that, to the extent prudent and determinable, critical habitat be designated concurrently with the listing of a species. If we determine that it is prudent and determinable, we will publish a proposed designation of critical habitat for elkhorn and staghorn corals in a separate rule. Public Comments Solicited To ensure that any final action resulting from this proposal will be as accurate and effective as possible, we are soliciting comments from the public, other concerned governmental agencies, the scientific community, industry, and any other interested parties. Final promulgation of any regulation(s) on this species or withdrawal of this listing proposal will take into consideration the comments and any additional information we receive, and such communications may lead to a final regulation that differs from this proposal or result in a withdrawal of this listing proposal. Solicitation of Information In addition to comments on the proposed rule, we are soliciting information on areas that may qualify as critical habitat for elkhorn and staghorn coral. The physical and biological features essential to the conservation of the species and areas that contain these features should be identified. Areas outside the occupied geographic area should also be identified if such areas are essential to the conservation of the species. Essential features may include, but are not limited to: (1) space for individual growth and for normal behavior; (2) food, water, air, light, minerals, or other nutritional or physiological requirements; (3) cover or shelter; (4) sites for reproduction and development of offspring; and (5) habitats that are protected from disturbance or are representative of the historical, geographical, and ecological distributions of the species (50 CFR 424.12(b)). VerDate jul<14>2003 15:24 May 06, 2005 Jkt 205001 For areas potentially qualifying as critical habitat, we also request information describing: (1) activities or other threats to the essential features or activities that could be affected by designating them as critical habitat, and (2) the economic costs and benefits likely to result if these areas are designated as critical habitat. Public Hearing Dates and Locations Public hearings will be held at four locations in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Florida in June. The specific dates and locations of these meetings are listed below: (1) Monday, June 13, 2005, at the Caribe Hilton, The Flamboyan, San Geronimo Grounds, Los Rosales St., San Juan, Puerto Rico 00901, 7–9 p.m. (2) Tuesday, June 14, 2005, at the Holiday Inn Windward Passage, Veterans Drive, Caribbean B Room, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, 00804, 7–9 p.m. (3) Tuesday, June 21, 2005, at the Marathon Garden Club, 5270 Overseas Highway, Marathon, FL, 33050, 1:30– 3:30 p.m. (4) Wednesday, June 22, 2005, at the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel, Manatee/ Marlin Room, 400 Gulf Stream Way, Dania Beach, FL, 33004, 7–9 p.m. Special Accommodations These public hearings are physically accessible to people with disabilities. Requests for sign language interpretation or other auxiliary aids should be directed to Jennifer Moore no later than June 7, 2005 (see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT) Classification National Environmental Policy Act The 1982 amendments to the ESA, in section 4(b)(1)(A), restrict the information that may be considered when assessing species for listing. Based on this limitation of criteria for a listing decision and the opinion in Pacific Legal Foundation v. Andrus, 675 F. 2d 825 (6th Cir.1981), NMFS has concluded that ESA listing actions are not subject to the environmental assessment requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. (See NOAA Administrative Order 216–6.) Executive Order 12866, Regulatory Flexibility Act and Paperwork Reduction Act As noted in the Conference Report on the 1982 amendments to the ESA, economic impacts shall not be considered when assessing the status of a species. Therefore, the economic analysis requirements of the Regulatory Flexibility Act are not applicable to the PO 00000 Frm 00039 Fmt 4702 Sfmt 4702 listing process. In addition, this rule is exempt from review under Executive Order 12866. This proposed rule does not contain a collection-of-information requirement for the purposes of the Paperwork Reduction Act. Federalism In keeping with the intent of the Administration and Congress to provide continuing and meaningful dialogue on issues of mutual state and Federal interest, this proposed rule will be given to the relevant state agencies in each state in which the species is believed to occur, who will be invited to comment. We have conferred with the State of Florida and the Territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S.V.I. in the course of assessing the status of the elkhorn and staghorn corals, and considered, among other things, Federal, state and local conservation measures. As we proceed, we intend to continue engaging in informal and formal contacts with the states and territories, and other affected local or regional entities, giving careful consideration to all written and oral comments received. We also intend to consult with appropriate elected officials in the establishment of any final rule. References Acropora Biological Review Team. 2005. Atlantic Acropora Status Review Document. Report to National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Regional Office. March 3, 2005. 152 p + App. List of Subjects in 50 CFR Part 223 Endangered and threatened species, Exports, Imports, Transportation. Dated: May 3, 2005. John Oliver, Deputy Assistant Administrator for Operations, National Marine Fisheries Service. For the reasons set out in the preamble, 50 CFR part 223 is proposed to be amended as follows: PART 223—THREATENED MARINE AND ANADROMOUS SPECIES 1. The authority for part 223 continues to read as follows: Authority: 16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq; subpart B, § 223.12 issued under 16 U.S.C. 1361 et seq. 2. In § 223.102, add paragraph (e) to read as follows: § 223.102 Enumeration of threatened marine and anadromous species. * * * * * (e) Marine invertebrates. Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), rangewide, and staghorn coral (Acropora E:\FR\FM\09MYP1.SGM 09MYP1 Federal Register / Vol. 70, No. 88 / Monday, May 9, 2005 / Proposed Rules cervicornis), rangewide. Includes United States Florida, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Navassa; and wider-Caribbean Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, VerDate jul<14>2003 15:24 May 06, 2005 Jkt 205001 Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Netherlands Antilles, Nicaragua, Panama, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the PO 00000 Frm 00040 Fmt 4702 Sfmt 4702 24365 Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela. * * * * * [FR Doc. 05–9222 Filed 5–4–05; 3:16 pm] BILLING CODE 3510–22–S E:\FR\FM\09MYP1.SGM 09MYP1

Agencies

[Federal Register Volume 70, Number 88 (Monday, May 9, 2005)]
[Proposed Rules]
[Pages 24359-24365]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 05-9222]


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DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

50 CFR Part 223

[Docket No. 050304058-5113-02; I.D. 060204C]
RIN 0648-XB29


Endangered and Threatened Species; Proposed Threatened Status for 
Elkhorn Coral and Staghorn Coral

AGENCY: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and 
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce.

ACTION: Proposed rule; request for comments.

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SUMMARY: We, the NMFS, have completed a comprehensive status review of 
elkhorn (Acropora palmata) and staghorn (A. cervicornis) corals and 
determined that a petitioned action to list both species is warranted. 
We have determined that fused-staghorn coral (A. prolifera) is a hybrid 
and therefore does not warrant listing. We have made our determination 
based on the best scientific and commercial data available and efforts 
being made to protect the species, and we propose to place both elkhorn 
and staghorn corals on the list of threatened species under the 
Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (ESA). We are announcing 
that hearings will be held at four locations in June to provide 
additional opportunities and formats to receive public input.

DATES: Comments on this proposal must be received by August 8, 2005. 
See SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION for the specific public hearing dates.

ADDRESSES: You may submit comments, identified by the RIN 0648-XB29, by 
any of the following methods:
     E-mail: Acropora.Info@noaa.gov. Include Docket Number or 
RIN 0648-XB29 in the subject line of the message.
     Mail: Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected 
Resources Division, NMFS, Southeast Regional Office, Protected 
Resources Division, 263 13th Ave. South, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.
     Facsimile (fax) to: 727-824-5309.
     Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. 
Follow the instructions for submitting comments. Instructions: All 
submissions received must include the agency name and docket number or 
Regulatory Information Number (RIN) for this rulemaking.
     See SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION for public hearing 
locations.
    The proposed rule and status review are also available 
electronically at the NMFS website at http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/
protres.htm

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Jennifer Moore or Stephania Bolden, 
NMFS, at the address above or at 727-824-5312, or Marta Nammack, NMFS, 
at 301-713-1401.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

    On March 4, 2004, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) 
petitioned us to list elkhorn, staghorn, and fused-staghorn corals as 
either threatened or endangered under the ESA and to designate critical 
habitat. On June 23, 2004, we made a positive 90-day finding (69 FR 
34995) that CBD presented substantial information indicating that the 
petitioned actions may be warranted and announced the initiation of a 
formal status review as required by section 4(b)(3)(A) of the ESA. 
Concurrently, we solicited additional information from the public on 
these acroporid corals regarding historic and current distribution and 
abundance, population status and trends, areas that may qualify as 
critical habitat, any current or planned activities that may adversely 
affect them, and known conservation efforts. Additional information was 
requested during two public meetings held in December 2004 on: (1) 
distribution and abundance; (2) areas that may qualify as critical 
habitat; and (3) approaches/criteria that could be used to assess 
listing potential of the acroporids (e.g., viability assessment, 
extinction risk, etc.).
    In order to conduct a comprehensive status review, we convened an 
Atlantic Acropora Biological Review Team (BRT). The members of the BRT 
were a diverse group of experts in their fields, including coral 
biologists and ecologists; specialists in coral disease, coral 
monitoring and restoration, climate change, water quality, coral 
taxonomy; regional experts in coral abundance/distribution throughout 
the Caribbean Sea; and state and Federal resource managers. The 
comprehensive, peer-reviewed status review report developed by the BRT 
incorporates and summarizes the best available scientific and 
commercial information as of March 2005. It addresses the status of the 
species, the five factors identified in ESA section 4(a)(1), and 
current regulatory, conservation and research efforts that may yield 
protection to the corals. The BRT also reviewed and considered the 
petition and materials we received as a result of the Federal Register 
document (69 FR 34995) and the public meetings; substantive materials 
were incorporated into the status review report.

Distribution and Abundance

    Acropora spp. are widely distributed throughout the wider Caribbean 
(U.S. Florida, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S.V.I.), Navassa; 
and Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, British 
Virgin Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican 
Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, 
Mexico, Netherlands Antilles, Nicaragua, Panama, St. Kitts and Nevis, 
St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and 
Venezuela). Both elkhorn and staghorn corals used to be the most 
abundant and most important species on Caribbean coral reefs in terms 
of accretion of reef structure. In general, elkhorn and staghorn corals 
have the same distribution, with few exceptions. Staghorn coral's 
northern extent (Broward County, Florida) is farther north than that of 
elkhorn coral (Miami-Dade County, Florida). Relative to other corals, 
both have high growth rates that have allowed reef growth to keep pace 
with past changes in sea level. Additionally, both exhibit branching 
morphologies that provide important habitat for other reef organisms; 
no other Caribbean reef-building coral

[[Page 24360]]

species is able to fulfill these ecosystem functions. At the current 
reduced abundance of A. palmata and A. cervicornis, it is highly likely 
that both these ecosystem functions have been largely lost.
    The third Acropora spp. present in the Caribbean Sea is the fused-
staghorn coral (A. prolifera). Although it has a history in the 
taxonomic literature, recent genetic research has determined that it is 
an F1 (i.e., first generation) hybrid between A. cervicornis and A. 
palmata. While there is genetic evidence that A. prolifera has 
backcrossed with A. cervicornis on evolutionary time scales, and it 
undergoes gametogenesis, there is no evidence that it interbreeds 
(i.e., produces sexual offspring in a cross between two A. prolifera 
colonies). For this reason, the BRT did not include fused-staghorn 
coral as a species within the status review, and we determined that it 
does not meet the definition of a species under the ESA.
    Both elkhorn and staghorn corals underwent precipitous declines in 
abundance in the early 1980s throughout their range, and this decline 
has continued. Although quantitative data on former distribution and 
abundance are scarce, in the few locations where quantitative data are 
available (i.e., Florida Keys, Dry Tortugas, Jamaica and the U.S.V.I.), 
declines in abundance are estimated at greater than 97 percent. 
Although this decline trend has been documented as continuing in the 
late 1990s, and even in the past 5 years in some locations, local 
extirpations (i.e., at the island or country scale) have not been 
documented. While recruitment of new colonies has been reported in 
various geographic locations, new recruits appear to be suffering 
mortality faster than they can mature (to sizes greater than 1 m in 
colony diameter). In a very few locations (e.g., Buck Island Reef 
National Monument) moderate recovery of elkhorn coral appears to be 
progressing. In most cases the genetic origin of the recruits, 
presumably from sexual reproduction, is unknown so that their 
contribution to the corals' Caribbean-wide recovery remains 
undetermined.

Analysis of the Definitions of Endangered and Threatened Species

    We first considered whether all three of the corals listed in the 
petition met the definition of ``species'' pursuant to section 3 of the 
ESA. The term ``species'' includes ``any subspecies of fish or wildlife 
or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of 
vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.'' Based on 
this language, a ``species'' is given its ordinary, accepted biological 
meaning.
    Species diagnoses for both elkhorn and staghorn were not debated as 
both species are recognized as separate taxa in the literature, have 
separate and discrete diagnoses and morphologies, and produce viable 
gametes, larvae, and successful sexual offspring. On the other hand, we 
carefully reviewed and deliberated on the taxonomic diagnosis for 
fused-staghorn coral (A. prolifera). While A. prolifera has been 
recognized in the taxonomic literature as a species based on 
morphology, it has always been rare, and little specific scientific 
information is available regarding its distribution, abundance, and 
trends. In addition, a wide range of intermediate A. prolifera 
morphologies exist in nature, and this further complicates in situ 
assessment of abundance and distribution. For the purpose of the status 
review, we did not consider A. prolifera a species as it does not 
interbreed with itself to produce viable offspring, and is therefore a 
hybrid for the reasons summarized below:
    1. Recent scientific literature indicates that individuals of A. 
prolifera sampled from throughout the Caribbean region were all F1 
(i.e., first generation) hybrids of A. palmata and A. cervicornis. This 
finding is consistent with the observed rarity of A. prolifera. There 
is also genetic evidence that A. prolifera has undergone rare 
backcrossing with the parent A. cervicornis on an evolutionary time 
scale.
    2. Data from a single unpublished study indicate that A. prolifera 
does undergo gametogenesis, but there is no direct evidence that 
zygotes are produced due to colony rarity, or that successful sexual 
offspring result.
    3. While it is unclear whether or not A. prolifera's gametes are 
viable, it is highly unlikely that genetically distinct colonies occur 
within sufficient proximity to routinely accomplish successful 
fertilization in nature.
    Therefore, based on the best information available and the 
generally accepted biological definition of a species (consisting of 
related organisms capable of interbreeding to produce viable 
offspring), we determined that A. prolifera is a hybrid which has not 
been shown to interbreed when mature, and it does not constitute a 
species under the ESA.
    Furthermore, although fused-staghorn is known to have backcrossed 
with staghorn at some time, similar elkhorn chromosome mapping has not 
been conducted. Therefore, we are reluctant to identify potential 
genealogy of the fused-staghorn relative to either elkhorn or staghorn 
coral. Instead, we determined that the hybrid should be considered a 
separate entity and that individuals of this entity are not considered 
members of either staghorn or elkhorn coral populations.
    Next, we carefully examined the definitions of endangered and 
threatened species pursuant to section 3 of the ESA wherein: (1) 
``endangered species'' is defined as ``any species which is in danger 
of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range;'' 
and (2) ``threatened species'' is defined as ``any species which is 
likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future 
throughout all or a significant portion of its range.''
    Corals are invertebrates, and, therefore, a listing determination 
must be based on the species' status throughout ``all or a significant 
portion'' of its range. The only information regarding discreteness or 
distinctiveness of Atlantic Acropora populations is a recent study that 
examined genetic exchange and clonal population structure in A. palmata 
by sampling and genotyping colonies from eleven locations throughout 
its geographic range using microsatellite markers. Results indicate 
that populations in the eastern Caribbean (St. Vincent and the 
Grenadines, U.S.V.I., Curacao, and Bonaire) have experienced little or 
no genetic exchange with populations in the western Caribbean (Bahamas, 
Florida, Mexico, Panama, Navassa, and Mona Island). Puerto Rico is an 
area of mixing where populations show genetic contribution from both 
regions, though it is more closely connected with the western 
Caribbean. Within these regions, the degree of larval exchange appears 
to be asymmetrical with some locations being entirely self-recruiting 
and some receiving immigrants from other locations within their region. 
No similar information exists for A. cervicornis. These results do not 
indicate source or sink areas, populations that are discrete or 
distinct, or any other specific geographic areas within the Caribbean 
Sea that should be considered more or less significant than another. 
Because there is no evidence indicating that any elkhorn or staghorn 
population within the geographic range of the species is more or less 
important than others, we considered the entire geographic range in 
determining status of these species.
    Based on the ESA definition of an endangered species, the danger of 
extinction must be examined. While the number (in terms of abundance 
and coverage) of elkhorn and staghorn corals rangewide has 
precipitously declined

[[Page 24361]]

over the last 30 years, total number of colonies and presumably 
individuals remains very, very large (although the absolute number of 
colonies or coverage is unquantified). Given the high number of 
colonies, the species' large geographic range that remains intact (no 
evidence of range constriction), and the fact that asexual reproduction 
(fragmentation) provides a source for new colonies (albeit perhaps 
clones) which likely buffers natural demographic and environmental 
variability, we believe that both species retain significant potential 
for persistence and are at a low risk of extinction in the near term. 
Additionally, both elkhorn and staghorn corals have persisted through 
climate cooling and heating fluctuation periods over millions of years 
as determined by the geologic record, where other corals have gone 
extinct. Therefore, we have determined as a preliminary matter that 
neither elkhorn nor staghorn corals are in danger of extinction 
throughout all of their range.
    For many of the same reasons discussed above, we determined that 
both elkhorn and staghorn corals may meet the ESA definition of 
threatened species. First, we established that the appropriate period 
of time corresponding to the foreseeable future is a function of the 
particular kinds of threats, the life-history characteristics, and the 
specific habitat requirements for the species under consideration. It 
is also consistent with the purpose of the ESA that the timeframe for 
the foreseeable future be adequate to provide for the conservation and 
recovery of threatened species and the ecosystems upon which they 
depend. Given this conceptual framework and the fact that some threats 
such as hurricanes or major disease outbreaks can happen at anytime and 
other threats happen over longer periods of time (e.g., habitat 
degradation, global climate change), the slow-growing and late maturing 
aspects of the species life history, and the fact that the current 
decline as documented by the BRT occurred during the last 20 to 30 
years, we have preliminarily determined the foreseeable future for 
these species to be 30 years.
    We then considered the following items on the timescale outlined 
above in evaluating the status of elkhorn and staghorn corals:
    1. Recent drastic declines in abundance of both species have 
occurred throughout their geographic range and abundances are at 
historic lows;
    2. Broad geographic ranges could become constricted due to local 
extirpations resulting from a single stochastic event (e.g., 
hurricanes, new disease outbreak);
    3. Sexual recruitment is limited in some areas and unknown in most 
as fertilization success from clones is virtually zero; settlement of 
larvae is often unsuccessful given limited amount of appropriate 
habitat;
    4. The Allee effect is occurring (fertilization success declines 
greatly as adult density declines).
    Based upon these facts, we believe that abundance and distribution 
of both elkhorn and staghorn coral are likely to become further 
reduced. Furthermore, a series of local extirpations are likely to 
occur within the next 30 years. We believe that while elkhorn and 
staghorn coral are not currently in danger of extinction throughout all 
or a significant portion of their range, they are likely to become so 
within the foreseeable future. Therefore, we propose to list them as 
threatened under the ESA.

Analysis of Factors Affecting the Species

    Section 4 of the ESA (16 U.S.C. 1533) and regulations promulgated 
to implement the listing provisions of the ESA (50 CFR part 424) set 
forth the procedures for adding species to the Federal list. Section 4 
requires that listing determinations be based solely on the best 
scientific and commercial data available, without consideration of 
possible economic or other impacts of such determinations. Section 
4(a)(1) of the ESA provides that the Secretary of Commerce shall 
determine whether any species is endangered or threatened because of 
any of five specified factors; these factors and their relevance to the 
status of elkhorn and staghorn corals are analyzed below.

The Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment of 
its Habitat or Range

    Seven stressors (natural abrasion and breakage, anthropogenic 
abrasion and breakage, sedimentation, persistent elevated temperature, 
competition, excessive nutrients and sea level rise) were identified as 
threats affecting both species through present or threatened 
destruction, modification, or curtailment of their habitats or ranges. 
This consists of both destruction or disruption of substrate to grow 
on, and modification or alteration of the aquatic environment in which 
the corals live. Although habitat loss has occurred, to date, the range 
of these two species has not been reduced. However, because of the 
species' extremely low abundance, local extirpations are possible in 
the foreseeable future, leading to a reduction in range.
    Elkhorn and staghorn corals, like most corals, require hard, 
consolidated substrate (i.e., attached, dead coral skeleton) for their 
larvae to settle or fragments to reattach. When the substrate is 
physically disturbed, and when the attached corals are broken and 
reduced to unstable rubble or sediment, settlement and reattachment 
habitat is lost. The most common causes of natural abrasion and 
breakage (physical disturbance) are severe storm events, including 
hurricanes. Severe storms can lead to the complete destruction and 
mortality of entire reef zones dominated by these species as well as 
destruction of the habitat on which these species depend (i.e., by 
covering settlement, reattachment and growing surfaces with unstable 
rubble and sediment). These major storms have physically disrupted 
reefs throughout the wider Caribbean and are among the primary causes 
of elkhorn and staghorn coral habitat loss in certain locations. Human 
activity in coral reef areas is another source of abrasion and breakage 
(anthropogenic), and thus destruction of A. palmata and A. cervicornis 
habitat. These activities include boating, anchoring, fishing, 
recreational SCUBA diving and snorkeling, and an increasing variety of 
maritime construction and development activities. The shallow habitat 
requirements of these two species make them especially susceptible to 
impacts from these anthropogenic activities, which have been documented 
as causing effects similar to severe storms, though usually on a 
smaller scale.
    Acropora spp. also appear to be particularly sensitive to shading 
effects resulting from increased sediments in the water column. Because 
these corals are almost entirely dependent upon sunlight for 
nourishment, they are much more susceptible to increases in water 
turbidity and sedimentation than other species. Increased sediments in 
the water column, which have been documented to impede larval 
settlement, can result from, among other things, land development and 
run-off, dredging and disposal activities, and major storm events.
    Optimal water temperatures for elkhorn and staghorn coral range 
from 25 to 29[deg] C, with the species being able to tolerate higher 
temperatures for a brief period of time (e.g., order of days to weeks 
depending on the magnitude of the temperature elevation). Global 
atmospheric air and sea temperatures have been documented as rising 
over the past century, and shallow reef habitats are especially 
vulnerable. Water with sea surface temperatures above the optimal range 
does not provide suitable habitat for either of the two species.

[[Page 24362]]

    Because of their fast growth rates (relative to other corals) and 
canopy-forming morphology, A. palmata and A. cervicornis are known to 
be competitive dominants within coral communities, in terms of their 
ability to overgrow other stony and soft corals. However, other types 
of reef benthic organisms (i.e., algae) have higher growth rates and 
are expected to have greater competitive ability than Acropora spp. 
Under current physical oceanographic conditions in shallow, coastal 
areas (i.e., elevated nutrients), algae are typically out-competing 
both Acropora spp. for space on the reef. The consequence of this 
competition is that less habitat is available for the two species to 
colonize.
    Nutrients are added to coral reefs from both point sources (readily 
identifiable inputs where pollutants are discharged to receiving 
surface waters from a pipe or drain) and non-point sources (inputs that 
occur over a wide area and are associated with particular land uses). 
Coral reefs have been generally considered to be nutrient-limited 
systems, meaning that levels of accessible nitrogen and phosphorus 
limit the rates of plant growth. When nutrients levels are raised in 
such a system, plant growth can be expected to increase, and this can 
yield imbalance and changes in community structure. The widespread 
increase in algae abundance on Caribbean corals reefs has been 
attributed to nutrient enrichment. Therefore, less habitat is available 
for elkhorn and staghorn coral larval settlement or fragment 
reattachment.

Overutilization for Commercial, Recreational, Scientific, or 
Educational Purposes

    Only one stressor under the second factor identified in section 
4(a)(1), overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or 
educational purposes, was identified as a potential threat to elkhorn 
and staghorn corals: overharvest for curio/aquarium demand. 
Overutilization does not appear to be a significant threat to either of 
these two species given current regulation and management.

Disease or Predation

    Disease was identified as the single largest cause of both elkhorn 
and staghorn coral mortality and decline. It is also the greatest 
threat to the two species' persistence and recovery given its 
widespread, episodic, and unpredictable occurrence resulting in high 
mortality. The threat is exacerbated by the fact that disease, though 
clearly severe, is poorly understood in terms of etiology and possible 
links to anthropogenic stressors. Although the number or identity of 
specific disease conditions affecting Atlantic Acropora spp. and the 
causal factors involved are uncertain, several generalizations are 
evident. First, both total number of described Acropora spp. specific 
diseases as well as the prevalence and/or geographic range of impact 
have increased over the past decade, and the trend is expected to 
continue. Second, disease has had, and continues to have, major ongoing 
impacts on population abundance and colony condition of both elkhorn 
and staghorn coral. Diseases affecting these species may prevent or 
delay their recovery in the wider Caribbean. Finally, diseases 
constitute an ongoing, major threat about which specific mechanistic 
and predictive understanding is largely lacking, thus precluding 
effective control or management strategies.
    Acropora spp. are also subject to invertebrate (e.g., polychaete, 
mollusk, echinoderm) and vertebrate (fish) predation, but ``plagues'' 
of coral predators such as the Indo-Pacific crown-of-thorns outbreaks 
(Acanthaster planci) have not been described in the Atlantic. Predation 
may directly cause mortality or injuries that lead to invasion of other 
biota (e.g., algae, boring sponges). The threat of predation, while 
apparently much less than that of disease, is also contributing to the 
status of these species.

Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms

    We evaluated existing regulatory mechanisms (fourth factor 
identified in ESA section 4(a)(1)) currently in place and consisting of 
enforceable provisions which are directed at managing threats to 
elkhorn and staghorn corals. Most existing regulatory mechanisms are 
not specific to the two species, but were promulgated to manage corals 
or coral reefs in general. While the impact of many stressors were 
determined to be slightly reduced with the implementation of 
regulations, none were totally abated. For example, the Fishery 
Management Plan for Coral and Coral Reefs of the Gulf of Mexico and 
South Atlantic (under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and 
Management Act) protects all corals from harvest, sale and destruction 
on the seabed in U.S. Federal waters during fishing related activities. 
In some cases, elkhorn and staghorn corals are incidentally destroyed 
during fishing practices, and, therefore, the regulation does not fully 
abate the threat from damaging fishing practices.
    The major threats to these species' persistence (i.e., disease, 
elevated temperature and hurricanes) are severe, unpredictable, and 
have increased over the past 3 decades. At current levels of knowledge, 
the threats are unmanageable, and there is no apparent indication that 
these trends will change in the foreseeable future. No existing 
regulatory mechanisms are currently in place, or expected to be in 
place in the foreseeable future, to control or prevent these major 
threats to the two species. In the meantime, managing some of the 
stressors determined to be less severe (e.g., anchoring, vessel 
groundings, point and non-point source nutrients, sedimentation) may 
assist in decreasing the rate of A. palmata and A. cervicornis decline 
by enhancing coral condition and decreasing synergistic stress effects.

Other Natural or Manmade Factors Affecting the Continued Existence of 
the Species

    We identified eleven stressors that affect the status of elkhorn 
and staghorn corals as a result of other natural or manmade factors 
(fifth factor identified in ESA section 4(a)(1)): elevated temperature, 
competition, elevated nutrients, sedimentation, sea level rise, 
abrasion and breakage, contaminants, loss of genetic diversity, African 
dust, elevated carbon dioxide, and sponge boring. Many of these threats 
are the same as those identified in the first factor (habitat) because 
the same mechanism can cause direct impacts to the organisms in 
addition to destroying or disrupting their habitat. Impacts from some 
of these stressors are complex, resulting in synergistic habitat 
impacts (first factor identified in ESA section 4(a)(1)).
    Elevation of the typical sea surface temperature in tropical and 
subtropical oceans stresses Acropora spp. Global air and sea surface 
temperatures have risen over the past 100 years and shallow reef 
habitats are especially vulnerable. When exposed to elevated 
temperatures, elkhorn and staghorn corals expel the symbiotic algae 
(bleaching) on which they depend for a photosynthetic contribution to 
their energy budget, enhancement of calcification, and color. 
Temperature induced bleaching affects growth, maintenance, 
reproduction, and survival of these two species. As summarized in the 
status review report, bleaching has been documented as the source of 
extensive elkhorn and staghorn mortality in numerous locations 
throughout their range. The extent of bleaching is a function of the 
intensity of the temperature elevation and the duration of the event.
    Along with elevated temperature, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels 
have increased in the last century and there is no apparent evidence 
that the trend

[[Page 24363]]

will not continue. As atmospheric carbon dioxide is dissolved in 
surface seawater, seawater becomes more acidic, shifting the balance of 
inorganic carbon species away from carbon dioxide and carbonate toward 
bicarbonate. This shift decreases the ability of corals to calcify 
because corals are thought to use carbonate (not bicarbonate) to build 
their aragonite skeletons. Experiments have shown the reduction of 
calcification in response to elevated carbon dioxide levels.
    Rapid sea level rise was identified as a potential threat to these 
species; however, under current conditions, we conclude that this 
stressor is not affecting either of the two species' status.
    As discussed above, increased sediments in the water column can 
result from, among other things, land development and run-off, dredging 
and disposal activities, and major storm events. In addition to the 
habitat impacts, sedimentation has been shown to cause direct 
physiological stress to elkhorn and staghorn corals. Direct deposition 
of sediments on coral tissue and shading due to sediments in the water 
column have both caused tissue death in these species.
    In addition to the habitat impacts described above, natural and 
anthropogenic sources of abrasion and breakage (i.e., severe storms, 
vessel groundings, fishing debris) cause direct mortality to elkhorn 
and staghorn corals. Their branching morphology make them particularly 
susceptible to breakage. The creation of fragments through breakage is 
a natural means of asexual reproduction for these species. However, the 
fragments must encounter suitable habitat to be able to reattach and 
create a new colony. Under current conditions, suitable habitat is 
often not available, and entire elkhorn and staghorn reefs have been 
destroyed after these events.
    Many of the threats identified as contributing to the status of 
elkhorn and staghorn coral are minor in intensity, but have an impact 
nonetheless because of their extremely reduced population sizes. Direct 
competition with other species, skeleton bioerosion by clionid sponges, 
and effects from African dust all are minor threats, but they are 
exacerbating the species' current status.
    The severity of all of the threats (natural or manmade) ranges from 
high (e.g., temperature) to low (e.g., sponge boring). Some stressors 
(e.g., contaminants and loss of genetic diversity) are known to be 
threats to these two species, but their effect on the status is 
undetermined and understudied.

Summary and Synthesis of Analysis of the Factors Identified in ESA 
Section 4(a)(1)

    We determined that the major factors affecting the two species are 
disease, elevated temperature, and hurricanes. Other factors identified 
as contributing to the status of the species, given their extremely 
reduced population sizes, are sedimentation, anthropogenic abrasion and 
breakage, competition, excessive nutrients, sea level rise, predation, 
contaminants, loss of genetic diversity, African dust, elevated carbon 
dioxide levels, and sponge boring.

Basis for Proposed Determination

    In accordance with section 4(b)(1)(A) of the ESA, the determination 
that the petitioned action is warranted was based on the best 
scientific and commercial data available. As provided in 50 CFR 434.13, 
we used scientific and commercial publications, administrative reports, 
maps, and information received from experts on the subject.
    As further required by section 4(b)(2), we considered those efforts 
being made by States or foreign nations to protect or conserve the two 
species. As discussed above, the major threats to the two species are 
currently unmanageable, and, therefore, these efforts do not alter the 
threatened status of elkhorn and staghorn corals.
    Finally, section 4(b)(1)(B) of the ESA, requires us to give 
consideration to species which (1) have been designated as requiring 
protection from unrestricted commerce by any foreign nation, or (2) 
have been identified as in danger of extinction, or likely to become so 
within the foreseeable future, by any state agency or by any agency of 
a foreign nation. All corals are listed under Appendix II of the 
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna 
and Flora, which regulates international trade of species to ensure 
survival. Additionally, all corals, including elkhorn and staghorn 
corals, are protected under the U.S.V.I. Indigenous and Endangered 
Species Act of 1990, and both species have been listed recently in the 
``red book'' of threatened marine invertebrates of Colombia by a 
technical commission coordinated by the Ministry of the Environment. 
Acropora cervicornis was considered as a critically endangered species 
in Colombia and A. palmata was included as endangered. Thus, the 
proposed listing is consistent with foreign and international actions 
taken with regard to these species.

Similarity of Appearance of the Hybrid

    We also considered the risk to elkhorn and staghorn corals of not 
listing fused-staghorn coral pursuant to ESA section 4(e), Similarity 
of Appearance Cases. We determined that listing fused-staghorn coral 
under this provision is not warranted given its rarity, the fact that 
it is almost always found amongst colonies of other Acropora spp., and 
the conclusion by the BRT that the threat of overharvest by curio/
aquarium demand is well regulated.

Effects of Listing

    Conservation measures provided for species listed as endangered or 
threatened under the ESA include recovery actions (16 U.S.C. 1533(f)), 
critical habitat designations, Federal agency consultation requirements 
(16 U.S.C. 1536), and prohibitions on taking (16 U.S.C. 1538). 
Recognition of the species' plight through listing promotes 
conservation actions by Federal and state agencies, private groups, and 
individuals. Should the proposed listing be made final, a recovery 
program would be implemented, and critical habitat may be designated. 
We believe that to be successful, protective regulations and recovery 
programs for elkhorn and staghorn corals will need to be developed in 
the context of conserving aquatic ecosystem health. Federal, state and 
the private sectors will need to cooperate to conserve the listed 
elkhorn and staghorn corals and the ecosystems upon which they depend.

Service Policies on Role of Peer Review

    On July 1, 1994, we and FWS published a policy regarding peer 
review of scientific data (59 FR 34270). The intent of this peer review 
policy is to ensure that listings are based on the best scientific and 
commercial data available. Prior to a final listing, we formally 
solicit expert opinions and analyses on one or more specific questions 
or assumptions. This solicitation process may take place during a 
public comment period on any proposed rule or draft recovery plan, 
during the status review of a species under active consideration for 
listing, or at any other time deemed necessary to clarify a scientific 
question. The status review was peer reviewed by six experts in the 
field, with their substantive comments incorporated in the final status 
review

Critical Habitat

    Critical habitat is defined in section 3 of the ESA (16 U.S.C. 
1532(3)) as: (1) the specific areas within the geographical area 
occupied by a species, at the time

[[Page 24364]]

it is listed in accordance with the ESA, on which are found those 
physical or biological features (a) essential to the conservation of 
the species and (b) that may require special management considerations 
or protection; and (2) specific areas outside the geographical area 
occupied by a species at the time it is listed upon a determination 
that such areas are essential for the conservation of the species. 
``Conservation'' means the use of all methods and procedures needed to 
bring the species to the point at which listing under the ESA is no 
longer necessary. Section 4(a)(3)(a) of the ESA (16 U.S.C. 
1533(a)(3)(A)) requires that, to the extent prudent and determinable, 
critical habitat be designated concurrently with the listing of a 
species. If we determine that it is prudent and determinable, we will 
publish a proposed designation of critical habitat for elkhorn and 
staghorn corals in a separate rule.

Public Comments Solicited

    To ensure that any final action resulting from this proposal will 
be as accurate and effective as possible, we are soliciting comments 
from the public, other concerned governmental agencies, the scientific 
community, industry, and any other interested parties. Final 
promulgation of any regulation(s) on this species or withdrawal of this 
listing proposal will take into consideration the comments and any 
additional information we receive, and such communications may lead to 
a final regulation that differs from this proposal or result in a 
withdrawal of this listing proposal.

Solicitation of Information

    In addition to comments on the proposed rule, we are soliciting 
information on areas that may qualify as critical habitat for elkhorn 
and staghorn coral. The physical and biological features essential to 
the conservation of the species and areas that contain these features 
should be identified. Areas outside the occupied geographic area should 
also be identified if such areas are essential to the conservation of 
the species. Essential features may include, but are not limited to: 
(1) space for individual growth and for normal behavior; (2) food, 
water, air, light, minerals, or other nutritional or physiological 
requirements; (3) cover or shelter; (4) sites for reproduction and 
development of offspring; and (5) habitats that are protected from 
disturbance or are representative of the historical, geographical, and 
ecological distributions of the species (50 CFR 424.12(b)).
    For areas potentially qualifying as critical habitat, we also 
request information describing: (1) activities or other threats to the 
essential features or activities that could be affected by designating 
them as critical habitat, and (2) the economic costs and benefits 
likely to result if these areas are designated as critical habitat.

Public Hearing Dates and Locations

    Public hearings will be held at four locations in Puerto Rico, the 
U.S. Virgin Islands, and Florida in June. The specific dates and 
locations of these meetings are listed below:
    (1) Monday, June 13, 2005, at the Caribe Hilton, The Flamboyan, San 
Geronimo Grounds, Los Rosales St., San Juan, Puerto Rico 00901, 7-9 
p.m.
    (2) Tuesday, June 14, 2005, at the Holiday Inn Windward Passage, 
Veterans Drive, Caribbean B Room, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. 
Virgin Islands, 00804, 7-9 p.m.
    (3) Tuesday, June 21, 2005, at the Marathon Garden Club, 5270 
Overseas Highway, Marathon, FL, 33050, 1:30-3:30 p.m.
    (4) Wednesday, June 22, 2005, at the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel, 
Manatee/Marlin Room, 400 Gulf Stream Way, Dania Beach, FL, 33004, 7-9 
p.m.

Special Accommodations

    These public hearings are physically accessible to people with 
disabilities. Requests for sign language interpretation or other 
auxiliary aids should be directed to Jennifer Moore no later than June 
7, 2005 (see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT)

Classification

National Environmental Policy Act

    The 1982 amendments to the ESA, in section 4(b)(1)(A), restrict the 
information that may be considered when assessing species for listing. 
Based on this limitation of criteria for a listing decision and the 
opinion in Pacific Legal Foundation v. Andrus, 675 F. 2d 825 (6th 
Cir.1981), NMFS has concluded that ESA listing actions are not subject 
to the environmental assessment requirements of the National 
Environmental Policy Act. (See NOAA Administrative Order 216-6.)

Executive Order 12866, Regulatory Flexibility Act and Paperwork 
Reduction Act

    As noted in the Conference Report on the 1982 amendments to the 
ESA, economic impacts shall not be considered when assessing the status 
of a species. Therefore, the economic analysis requirements of the 
Regulatory Flexibility Act are not applicable to the listing process. 
In addition, this rule is exempt from review under Executive Order 
12866. This proposed rule does not contain a collection-of-information 
requirement for the purposes of the Paperwork Reduction Act.

Federalism

    In keeping with the intent of the Administration and Congress to 
provide continuing and meaningful dialogue on issues of mutual state 
and Federal interest, this proposed rule will be given to the relevant 
state agencies in each state in which the species is believed to occur, 
who will be invited to comment. We have conferred with the State of 
Florida and the Territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S.V.I. in the 
course of assessing the status of the elkhorn and staghorn corals, and 
considered, among other things, Federal, state and local conservation 
measures. As we proceed, we intend to continue engaging in informal and 
formal contacts with the states and territories, and other affected 
local or regional entities, giving careful consideration to all written 
and oral comments received. We also intend to consult with appropriate 
elected officials in the establishment of any final rule.

References

    Acropora Biological Review Team. 2005. Atlantic Acropora Status 
Review Document. Report to National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast 
Regional Office. March 3, 2005. 152 p + App.

List of Subjects in 50 CFR Part 223

    Endangered and threatened species, Exports, Imports, 
Transportation.

    Dated: May 3, 2005.
John Oliver,
Deputy Assistant Administrator for Operations, National Marine 
Fisheries Service.
    For the reasons set out in the preamble, 50 CFR part 223 is 
proposed to be amended as follows:

PART 223--THREATENED MARINE AND ANADROMOUS SPECIES

    1. The authority for part 223 continues to read as follows:

    Authority: 16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq; subpart B, Sec.  223.12 issued 
under 16 U.S.C. 1361 et seq.
    2. In Sec.  223.102, add paragraph (e) to read as follows:


Sec.  223.102  Enumeration of threatened marine and anadromous species.

* * * * *
    (e) Marine invertebrates. Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), 
rangewide, and staghorn coral (Acropora

[[Page 24365]]

cervicornis), rangewide. Includes United States Florida, Puerto Rico, 
U.S. Virgin Islands, Navassa; and wider-Caribbean - Antigua and 
Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, British Virgin Islands, 
Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, 
Guadeloupe, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Netherlands 
Antilles, Nicaragua, Panama, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. 
Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela.
* * * * *
[FR Doc. 05-9222 Filed 5-4-05; 3:16 pm]
BILLING CODE 3510-22-S