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National nonprofit to file lawsuit over cauliflower coral in Hawaii

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    Cauliflower coral (Pocillopora meandrina) from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

A national environmental nonprofit today launched a lawsuit against the Trump administration for failing to protect cauliflower coral around the Hawaiian islands.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue the administration in federal court for failing to issue a 12-month finding regarding its petition to list cauliflower coral as “threatened” or “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.

Cauliflower corals, or Pocillopora meandrina, are found in shallow reefs throughout the East Pacific and Indo-Pacific. In Hawaii, the corals have died from severe bleaching events, which are predicted to increase due to the frequency and severity of thermal stress events.

“As climate change wreaks havoc on this beautiful purple and pink coral, federal officials are dragging their feet on protecting it,” said Maxx Phillips, the center’s Hawaii director, in a news release. “Coral reefs are so important to Hawaii, and they support our ocean’s biodiversity and protect our coasts. The federal government has a legal and moral responsibility to protect cauliflower coral and coral reefs from the climate crisis.”

On March 14, 2018, the center filed a petition to list the cauliflower coral in Hawaii as an endangered or threatened species. In September, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced the listing of the coral across its range may be warranted “based on the threat of ocean warming alone” and opened a 90-day review.

The center said officials have failed to follow up on whether the listing is warranted within 12 months, as required by law.

If no action is taken within 60 days, the center plans to file the lawsuit in federal court against the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and National Marine Fisheries Service.

“As we see continuing coral crises across all of our oceans, we need to be more vigilant here in Hawaii than anywhere,” said Phillips.

Between 1999 to 2012, the cauliflower coral coverage around the Hawaiian isles declined by 36%, the center said, and were among the most affected coral reef species in the 2014 and 2015 mass bleaching events in Hawaii.

Surveys conducted in late 2014 at multiple sites on four main Hawaiian islands and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands showed 15.5% of cauliflower coral colonies had been bleached, according to the Federal Register. Surveys at eight sites in Hanauma Bay in 2015 and 2016 found 64% of cauliflower coral colonies showed signs of bleaching, and 1.3% had died from bleaching.

Today, the corals continue to be threatened by ocean warming and acidification resulting from climate change, as well as land-based pollution, sedimentation and physical disturbances by humans.

The center believes an EPA listing could help mitigate those threats.

An earlier petition the center filed in 2006 resulted in the protection of elkhorn and staghorn corals, which became the first species ever protected under the Endangered Species Act because of the threat of global warming.

Phillips noted that cauliflower coral is called “Ko‘a” in Hawaiian. The kumulipo, a Hawaiian creation chant, talks about coral being a fundamental builder of the islands, she said, so protecting them on a federal level is important culturally as well as environmentally.

“We want to protect it but we need federal help,” she said. “Healthy coral reefs are the foundation of healthy oceans.”

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