KAILUA-KONA — Following a three-year stretch of the worst bleaching events in recorded history that decimated roughly half of Hawaii’s corals, one species nearly extinct across the islands may be about to receive an improved chance at new life.
The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Wednesday to afford protection to cauliflower coral under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Cauliflower coral — formerly the state’s most abundant shallow water species, which made it more susceptible to the thermal stress that caused the bleaching — was nearly wiped out following the 2015 bleaching event.
Lindsey Kramer, a contractor with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources and the coral reef monitoring coordinator for Hawaii Island, said about 95 percent of cauliflower coral around the Big Island has since died.
“You’ll still see a lot of that structure out there,” she said, “but for the most part, it’s no longer alive.”
The process of classifying cauliflower coral as an endangered species would likely take at least 18 months to allow for various scientific reviews and public comment periods.
Abel Valdivia, an ocean scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Ocean Program and the man who filed the petition, said that if the coral is eventually afforded protection under the act, the NMFS would designate critical habitat for the coral and “establish a recovery plan with specific, measurable criteria and management actions to protect the species from harm and foster recovery.”
Beyond that, any federal agency would be required to ensure any of its proposed actions wouldn’t impact the coral’s designated habitat or any recovery actions. Valdivia said examples of such actions would be coastal construction, underwater cable setups or government-based agricultural activities that might lead to land-based pollution and runoff.
He added he doesn’t forecast any adverse impacts to the fishing and diving industries on Hawaii Island, both stakeholders that the Hawaii DAR is consulting as it formulates state-level plans to offer general protections to marine ecosystems, which could include strategies like developing marine protected areas, limiting take of herbivores that help reefs repopulate or focusing on land-based agricultural and sewage runoff.
“In contrast, fishing practices that harm corals may be modified. For example, the (Endangered Species Act) listing can secure funding to support a program that removes marine debris from impacted reefs, e.g. fishing nets that kill corals,” Valdivia said. “There is no negative effect on the diving industry.”
Kramer said she doesn’t believe an endangered species designation for cauliflower coral at a federal level would butt up against what DAR is trying to accomplish.
She added she’s not sure how much power the state would have but that Hawaii data sets were used in early analysis for Valdivia’s petition to the NMFS and she believes the state would be part of the conversation moving forward.
To Kramer’s knowledge, cauliflower coral would be the first coral species prevalent in Hawaii to receive protections under the Endangered Species Act. A few rice corals were considered for such a designation in a listing proposal from 2014, she said, but were cut from the final list.
Despite only a 5 percent survival rate following the massive bleaching stint between 2014-16, Kramer said she’s optimistic cauliflower coral can make a comeback. It has survived better in East Hawaii than West Hawaii, although experts are still trying to answer the question as to why.
“Anywhere we have survivors that’s potentially seed population for recruitment, and we have seen recruitment occasionally,” Kramer said. “It’s not like it’s totally gone, we have seen signs out there. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible (for cauliflower coral to return in abundance). We’re seeing signs of early recovery.”