Lawsuit Leads to Habitat Protection for Imperiled Ocean Species : Corals, Sawfish, and Green Sturgeon
WASHINGTON, D.C. In a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity against the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal government guaranteed Friday it would end its delay in protecting habitat for several marine species at risk of extinction. The Endangered Species Act requires critical habitat designation for species as soon as they are listed under the Act, but in practice such protection rarely occurs without citizen litigation that forces the government to uphold the law.
The settlement of the lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C., sets enforceable deadlines for all remaining overdue critical habitat rules for species under the jurisdiction of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency charged with implementing the Endangered Species Act for most marine species. The species covered by the settlement are the elkhorn coral, staghorn coral, smalltooth sawfish, and green sturgeon. The corals and sawfish occur in Florida, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, while the green sturgeon lives in California.
Habitat loss is the primary cause of species endangerment in the United States, according to scientists, threatening 85 percent of America's rarest plants and animals. According to the federal government's own data, species granted "critical habitat" under the Endangered Species Act are twice as likely to be recovering as those without protected habitat.
"This settlement ensures that these animals still have a place to call home," said Miyoko Sakashita, staff attorney with the Center. "It's no surprise that the most important way to protect endangered wildlife from extinction is by protecting and restoring its habitat."
Each of the species covered by the settlement is threatened by loss of habitat and should benefit greatly from critical habitat designation.
- Elkhorn and staghorn corals, listed as threatened in May 2006, are the first, and to date only, species listed under the Endangered Species Act due to threats from global warming. Formerly the dominant reef-building corals in Florida and the Caribbean, over the past 30 years these corals have suffered an 80- to 98-percent decline throughout their range due to bleaching from abnormally warm water, disease, overfishing and other threats.
- The smalltooth sawfish is a shark relative that has been overharvested for its saw-like tooth, popular in the curio trade. Once common in U.S. waters in Florida and the Gulf, the species is now rarely found, occurring primarily in Florida Bay and near the Everglades. Loss of habitat due to activities like agricultural and commercial development, dredge-and-fill operations, boating, erosion, and pollution threatens the smalltooth sawfish with extinction. The species was listed as endangered in April 2003.
- The green sturgeon is a large, prehistoric-looking marine fish that spawns in rivers where water projects and pollution have eliminated or degraded much of the suitable spawning habitat. The Sacramento River basin contains the only known spawning population that remains of the Endangered Species Act-protected southern population of green sturgeon. Estimated abundance of green sturgeon in the Sacramento River has plummeted by about 95 percent since 2001, when the Center first petitioned for federal protection for the species. The California Department of Fish and Game predicted that fewer than 25 female green sturgeon would migrate to Sacramento River spawning grounds in 2006. The southern distinct population segment of the species was listed as threatened in April 2006.
The Center's settlement requires that the government propose critical habitat for each of these species in early 2008, with final designation following within a year.
More information is available from the Center for Biological Diversity at www.biologicaldiversity.org.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with more than 35,000 members dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Website : the Center for Biological Diversity