Tues­day, Octo­ber 15, 2013 :: Staff infoZine
A fed­er­al dis­trict court has ruled that the Nation­al Marine Fish­eries Ser­vice vio­lat­ed the law by allow­ing fish­ing for deplet­ed par­rot­fish and oth­er algae-eat­ing reef fish species with­out prop­er­ly mon­i­tor­ing the fishery’s impacts on rare corals that depend on healthy fish populations.

San Juan, Puer­to Rico — The deci­sion came in response to an Endan­gered Species Act suit filed in Jan­u­ary 2012 by Earth­jus­tice on behalf of two con­ser­va­tion groups (CORALa­tions and the Cen­ter for Bio­log­i­cal Diver­si­ty), and Mary Adele Don­nel­ly. Local coun­sel for Earth­jus­tice on this case was Miguel Sar­ri­era, who has rep­re­sent­ed a num­ber of groups bat­tling for envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion through­out Puer­to Rico.

The court deter­mined the Fish­eries Ser­vice must do a bet­ter job mon­i­tor­ing the effects of com­mer­cial fish­ing on elkhorn and staghorn coral in the U.S. Vir­gin Islands and Puer­to Rico. These coral species are pro­tect­ed by the Endan­gered Species Act and serve as essen­tial habi­tat for fish and oth­er marine species. Par­rot­fish pro­tect these corals by graz­ing on algae that oth­er­wise would smoth­er the reef; remov­ing the fish allows the algae to dom­i­nate reef sys­tems and deny corals the space need­ed to grow.

Elkhorn (above) and staghorn coral, essential habitat for fish and other marine species, have declined by as much as 98–99 percent since the 1970s. Photo Courtesy of August Rode

Elkhorn (above) and staghorn coral, essen­tial habi­tat for fish and oth­er marine species, have declined by as much as 98–99 per­cent since the 1970s. Pho­to Cour­tesy of August Rode

In his deci­sion, Senior Judge Sal­vador E. Casel­las ruled that the Fish­eries Service’s mon­i­tor­ing plan was invalid because, as a base­line mat­ter, the agency didn’t even know how many par­rot­fish were present to begin with and in any event had not com­mit­ted to mon­i­tor­ing the impacts of the fish­ery on the par­rot­fish them­selves. Under these cir­cum­stances, the court con­clud­ed the Ser­vice had ille­gal­ly failed to estab­lish an ade­quate pro­ce­dure for ver­i­fy­ing whether its fish­ing plan was pre­vent­ing exces­sive harm to the threat­ened elkhorn and staghorn corals.

Par­rot­fish eat algae that can oth­er­wise smoth­er coral habi­tat. U.S. Caribbean reefs already suf­fer from exces­sive algae cov­er, a sit­u­a­tion exac­er­bat­ed by scoop­ing out the graz­ing fish nec­es­sary to hold back algal growth. This sit­u­a­tion leads to what sci­en­tists call a “death spi­ral” in which the removal of algae-eaters like par­rot­fish leads to increased algae and decreased coral, which in turn results in few­er fish and oth­er reef creatures.

Not so long ago, elkhorn and staghorn corals were the main reef-build­ing coral species in the Caribbean. Yet these species have declined by as much as 98–99 per­cent since the 1970s thanks to stres­sors includ­ing over­fish­ing, dis­ease, and cli­mate change. As the corals decline, so does qual­i­ty habi­tat for fish and oth­er creatures.