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Task Force issues call to protect coral reef ecosystems

Last Friday at the 30th Meeting of the US Coral Reef Task Force (USCRTF) in St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands, the US All Islands Coral Reef Committee (AIC) issued a call to action on their two top priorities: supporting the reauthorization of the nation’s Coral Reef Conservation Act; and expressing their concerns over the NOAA-proposed listing of 66 coral species under the Endangered Species Act.


Last November, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed to list 66 species of corals under the ESA: 7 in the Caribbean and 59 in the Pacific.


According to a media release from the AIC, a large percentage of the nation’s ecologically, economically, and culturally important coral reef ecosystems make their home in the AIC jurisdictions — American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Florida, Guam, Hawai’i, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.


“Reauthorizing the Coral Reef Conservation Act (2000) would put into place vital measures to protect and manage ecosystems in the U.S. In the AIC jurisdictions, reauthorization would expand and clarify support for conservation and management of coral reefs by leveraging resources and management compliance as well as clarifying the responsibilities of federal agencies to respond to catastrophic events,” said the AIC.


Fran Castro, the AIC Chair explained, “It’s been 13 years since the (Coral Reef Conservation) Act was first passed and our coral reefs need this reauthorization now, more than ever before. It is important that the Task Force support the reauthorization effort.”


The Coral Reef Conservation Act, according to the AIC, “is a strong tool for the protection and management of coral reefs, while the proposed coral listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) will create a great administrative burden with little benefit to improving coral reef health and resilience.”


Castro said, “By elevating the reauthorization and listing issues to the Task Force, federal and local governments will collaborate extensively to get the best possible outcomes.”


 The ESA said the AIC, “is not the right tool to protect these corals, particularly when the primary threat driving the consideration for ESA-listing is global climate change. This listing would put more strain on already limited resources in the jurisdictions, potentially taking away from local conservation, recovery, and management efforts.”


The AIC notes that since late 2012 when NOAA held its public hearings, new and significant information on coral species distribution and abundance have been provided as well as a refinement of the certainty of climate change predictions with respect to impact on corals. 
“This information will greatly improve the data available to evaluate the ‘risk of extinction’, the principle element in deciding the merit of listing.


“The AIC is requesting, through the USCRTF, that NOAA reevaluate their approach and analysis with this new information and use it to determine next steps.”


The AIC represents the combined voice of the coral reef jurisdictions of the U.S. and Affiliates and serves as the collected voice for local governments in the federal process to conserve coral reefs. 


For the United States Coral Reef Task Force (USCRTF), Governor Lolo Moliga, who was not able to attend the meeting, represents American Samoa.


In his remarks, Lt. Governor Lemanu Peleti Mauga (who went in place of Governor Lolo), relayed American Samoa’s support of the reauthorization of the Coral Reef Conservation Act in the three priority targets.


According to information from Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR) director Dr. Ruth Matagi-Tofiga, who also attended the meeting, the first and most important priority to the territory has to do with disaster and catastrophic events related to emergency response for the coral reef ecosystem.


In an email correspondence to Samoa News, Matagi-Tofiga explained that when the tsunami of 2009 devastated American Samoa, “we did not receive assistance in terms of marine debris, assessment of reef damages or implementation of necessary mitigation.”


The second target is the definition of coral and coral reef; and finally, the ratification of the US Coral Reef Task Force.


Matagi-Tofiga reported that Lemanu shared during the meeting, American Samoa's concern for the potential listing of coral species under the Endangered Species Act. “The listing is not the right tool to help protect and preserve our coral reefs. In fact, it may divert resources from much needed conservation efforts,” the DMWR director wrote.


Lemanu thanked the many partners for their support during the meeting, especially the Department of Interior, the National Park Service, and the divers from the Submerged Research Center, who are currently in American Samoa assisting with the removal of the Crown of Thorns.


The United States Coral Reef Task Force (USCRTF) was established in 1998 by a Presidential Executive Order to lead and coordinate US efforts to preserve and protect coral reef ecosystems.


Co-chaired by the Department of Commerce’s Assistant Secretary of Conservation and Management Dr. Mark Schaefer and DOI’s Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Eileen Soebeck, the task force includes 12 federal agencies, and governors of seven US states and territories, as well as the leaders of the freely associated states.


The United States Coral Reef Task Force (USCRTF) Steering Committee is made up of representatives from participating federal agencies, states and territories. Matagi-Tofiga was appointed by Governor Lolo to be his point of contact on the Steering Committee.


The Steering Committee serves as the primary work force for the USCRTF and oversees fulfillment of USCRTF action. The Committee also works closely with the USCRTF working groups and agency staff to fulfill a a variety of duties as assigned by the USCRTF.


Kristine Bucchaneri, coral reef coordinator for the American Samoa Coral Reef Advisory Group (CRAG) represented American Samoa on the Watershed working group.


Together, Bucchaneri and Matagi-Tofiga highlighted the following topics during the meeting:


(1) The Fagaalu Watershed, which is supported by DOI, NOAA, NRCS and USEPA as well as local agencies, led by the American Samoa Environmental Protection Agency;


(2) The Sunia Internship, which hosted 2 students, Valentine Vaeoso and Rocco Tinitali, from American Samoa, who worked during the summer months, carrying out scientific research at the Fagaalu watershed;


(3) Response to the Crown of Thorns Starfish outbreak (see yesterday’s Samoa News for full details);


(4) The two Samoa marine managed areas workshop;


(5) Red Tide (algal bloom in the Pago Pago Harbor) update;


(6) Coral listing under the Endangered Species Act;


(7) Natural disaster response; and the


(8) Territorial Climate Change Framework Programs.


According to coral reef experts, the major sources of threat to our coral reefs are land based pollution, climate change, and fishing.


“I know in American Samoa, land-based pollution and sedimentation run-off devastate our corals,” Matagi-Tofiga said. “This meeting provided an opportunity for federal agencies, states and territories, and non-profit organizations to share their best practices and research on how to protect our reefs.”


DMWR, CRAG, ASEPA, DOA, DOC, DYWA, and the Tourism Office jointly ask for the public’s support for this cause.


Yesterday, a “WAVE” to promote the protection of our natural resources was held at the Suigaula Ole Atuvasa Beach Park in Utulei.