In Defense of Coral Reefs

By Schwartz, Lorri | Endangered Species Bulletin, July 2006 | Go to article overview

In Defense of Coral Reefs


Schwartz, Lorri, Endangered Species Bulletin


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Coral reefs are the world's most biologically diverse marine ecosystems. They consist of a vast assemblage of plants, animals, and microbes, many of which are still scientifically unknown. Reef ecosystems provide habitat and food for fish, substances for new medicines, revenue from tourism and recreation, and protection from coastal storms. However, studies over the past 10 years show that corals are deteriorating at an alarming rate. Human activities such as coastal development, destructive fishing practices, pollution, and sedimentation are causing coral reef degradation worldwide. As a result of these impacts, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently listed the elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) and staghorn coral (A. cervicornis) as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

In response to growing concern, Executive Order (EO) 13089 (issued June 11, 1998) directed federal agencies to study, restore, and conserve coral reefs in the United States. It also established the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force to coordinated federal protection. The Task Force is co-chaired by the Secretaries of the Departments of Interior and Commerce, and is composed of representatives from participating federal agencies, states, territories, and Freely Associated States. The Department of Defense, a member of the Task Force, is represented by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Installations and Environment). The Task Force oversees implementation of the EO, guides coral reef initiatives, and works in cooperation with other agencies and stakeholders. It is also responsible for coordinating a comprehensive program to 1) map and monitor U.S. coral reefs, 2) develop and implement research and mitigation efforts, and 3) assess the U.S. role in international protection.

In 2000, the Navy, with assistance from the other military services, submitted the DoD Coral Reef Protection Implementation Plan. The DoD plan contains a comprehensive overview of Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps policies and programs related to coral reef protection, describes military activities potentially affecting coral reef ecosystems, and lists funding sources for conservation. It includes a discussion of DoD research, outreach, and stewardship initiatives to protect and enhance coral reef ecosystems. The plan continues to be a useful source of environmental information and requirements for military personnel, and it is an excellent communications vehicle for disseminating information to other federal agencies and the public.

The DoD uses a variety of programs to identify and avoid impacts to coral reefs, but the most important of these is environmental planning. The Navy evaluates major operations and training exercises for potential environmental impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act. Although EO 13089 applies only to U.S. coral reef ecosystems, actions conducted internationally are reviewed under EO 12114, Environmental Effects Abroad of Major Federal Actions. Environmental plans for training and combat exercises provide for the proper management of ship and vehicular operations to avoid damage to coastlines, reefs, and beaches. The DoD also uses information from baseline ecological surveys, and innovative maneuvering techniques to ensure that coral reefs are protected during testing and training operations. The Navy is using a marine-based Geographic Information System (GIS) system that will contain coral reef monitoring data, reef locations, habitat conditions, and related marine fisheries information. Installations near coral reef ecosystems also include ecological information on reefs and conservation measures in their Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan.

Part of the DoD Coral Reef Protection Implementation Plan addresses marine pollution. In accordance with the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, DoD complies with strict shipboard pollution prevention standards. …

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