Science to Support the Recovery of Threatened Corals

Elkhorn coral
Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata). Credit: NOAA Fisheries
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The recovery plan pinpoints steps that scientists, resource managers, and community members can take to tackle threats--at both the local and global scales-- that have decimated elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) and staghorn coral (A. cervicornis) across the Caribbean.

Alison Moulding, a researcher with NOAA Fisheries, worked with top experts to draft the recovery plan and guide it through the public comment process and finalization. In this interview, Moulding explains why these two corals are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and the steps needed to recover them.

Why are elkhorn and staghorn coral now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act?

Elkhorn coral and staghorn coral were once dominant coral species on reefs in the wider Caribbean, but since the 1980s, these corals have suffered severe population declines due to disease, hurricanes, and temperature-induced bleaching. In 2006, elkhorn coral and staghorn coral were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In 2012, NOAA Fisheries proposed to change their status to endangered at the same time as they were proposing to list additional coral species under the Endangered Species Act.

Ultimately in 2014, NOAA Fisheries maintained their listing status as threatened. The threats contributing to their status and hindering their recovery are disease, ocean warming, ocean acidification, pollution (nutrients, sediments, contaminants), physical damage, habitat loss, predation, reduced reproduction, and reduced genetic diversity.

What are some key steps outlined in the recovery plan to improve both corals?

There are 24 actions, most of which have several sub-actions, in the recovery plan that describe steps needed to improve the status of both corals. The actions fall broadly into three categories:

  1. Research and monitoring;
  2. Reduction or elimination of threats; and
  3. Population enhancement through coral propagation.

Some actions dealing with local threats, such as installation of mooring buoys to reduce physical impacts, are relatively easy to implement. Actions dealing with global threats, such as reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, will take more concerted effort.

Because the global threats are more intractable, implementing the actions to reduce threats from local sources (e.g., pollution) is extremely important to help improve the species' ability to cope with global threats.

Does the recovery plan apply to one specific geographic area?

The recovery plan only applies to Caribbean elkhorn and staghorn corals. Removing these two species from the list of threatened and endangered species can only occur if the species are recovered throughout their range, so the recovery plan applies to the wider Caribbean.

Because threats to the species are both local and global in nature, the plan describes actions that are needed both within the U.S. and Caribbean, as well as broader actions needed from the global community. Although recovery plans are developed under U.S. law, they are non-regulatory guidance documents that serve as roadmaps to species recovery and do not require anyone to fund or implement the actions listed in the plan.

How can the recovery plan benefit the condition of broader coral reef ecosystems?

Because threats to elkhorn and staghorn corals are common to all coral species, actions in the plan to reduce threats will benefit all coral species. Additionally, the recovery plan contains actions that are intended to improve habitat and ecosystem function. These include activities, like restoring herbivory and implementing effective watershed and land-use management plans, which will benefit the condition of the broader coral reef ecosystem.

What are the next steps in the recovery of these once dominant corals?

Now that the recovery plan is finalized, the next step is implementation. NOAA Fisheries will likely assemble a recovery implementation team to guide and prioritize actions in the plan. Involving the international Caribbean community and acquiring funding for carrying out recovery actions will be paramount to an effective recovery strategy.

To learn more about staghorn and elkhorn corals, as well as the recovery plan, visit: