National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a list of 20 more corals that are in danger of becoming extinct. The original list included only two coral species and had not been updated since 2006.
In the Florida Atlantic area, scientists added five more "threatened" species -- increasing the area's list to seven. Some of them live in other areas of the Caribbean -- including the Gulf of Mexico -- where UK-based BP and ConocoPhillips have made big bids for oil and gas exploration.
The ruling means that government agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency need to get permits and consult with NOAA if their work affects any of the corals listed. Two years ago, the agency's original proposal included 66 species -- but they narrowed their ruling down to 20.
"Public comments helped us refine the way we apply all the available information to determine vulnerability to extinction of each species considered," the agency said on the ruling announcement.
Two Florida Atlantic corals -- the Elkhorn and Staghorn -- were the species listed eight years ago. On Tuesday night, the scientific agency added 20 more species that included three star corals, rough cactus coral and pillow corals.
The agency's ruling on corals in trouble also provides limited protection to 15 more species that live in the Pacific waters. This includes areas in remote islands like the American Samoa.
The agency also warns that coral reefs are critical to the health of marine ecosystems and that they have declined significantly world wide. Scientists say coral reefs are the rainforests of the sea and NOAA has estimated their economic value at $30 billion.
Some species, the agency reports, have declined by at lease 90 percent. Among the reasons for the damage were poor land-use practices, ocean acidification, and rising temperatures. In South Florida, fertilizer runoff continues to be a problem.
In Miami, the Department of Environmental Protection recently issued a warning letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The letter warned that a PortMiami dredging project was creating a sediment smothering coral, the Miami Herald reported. Miami-Dade County reports said the project is essential to remain competitive with other ports due to the Panama Canal expansion.
LEGAL DEFINITION: The Endangered Species Act defines "threatened" as "any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range." People are still able to kill "threatened" species, but not "endangered," under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
DOCUMENT | Download the NOAA report released this week