Two coral species in Florida and the Caribbean now have a spot on the federal threatened list because of dangers posed by human activity, hurricanes and higher water temperatures.
The elkhorn and staghorn coral species have suffered a 97 percent decline in areas off the Florida Keys and in the Caribbean since 1985 and must be protected, National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Stephania Bolden said Friday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the fisheries service, made the announcement Thursday in Washington, making the species the first coral to earn a threatened distinction. The move was praised by some scientists and environmentalists.
The federal government will hold forums in Florida and the Caribbean to discuss suggestions for rules to protect the coral under the Endangered Species Act, Bolden said.
A species is considered threatened if it is likely to become an endangered species. Rules for protecting threatened species are not as strict as those for endangered species, which face extinction.
“We have a little bit of leeway in thinking about rules to allow conservation efforts” such as repairing damaged coral, Bolden said.
Both coral species have protruding branches that look like antlers. They are part of reefs that are home to fish, crustaceans and other invertebrates. Reefs also serve as barriers from storm waves.
But several factors have harmed the coral in the past 20 years. Disease, temperature