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Using Biological Criteria and the Clean Water Act to Protect Coral Reefs

EPA researchers recently published a manual describing how to protect coral reefs from land-based stressors.

Fish and Coral Reef

Coral reefs are the largest living structures on the planet and have greater biodiversity than rainforests. But they are also one of the most threatened marine ecosystems.  Coral reefs are sensitive environments because of their highly specific requirements for temperature, salinity, oxygen, light, and nutrients.  Pollution, disease, climate change, physical contact, and habitat destruction threaten these fragile ecosystems.  

Coral reefs serve as habitat for abundant and diverse communities, providing food and shelter to a wide variety of species, including those at the base of the marine food chain. Their astounding natural beauty attracts divers and supports a large tourism industry.  Coral reefs serve as habitat and nursery grounds for fish and invertebrates that are harvested in commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries. The high biodiversity of coral reefs provides natural products for pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Often overlooked is the role of coral reefs in protecting coastlines from storms and floods and providing sand for beaches. Corals also are an important social and cultural focus, especially in small island-nations where so many coral reefs occur.  

Many actions have been taken to reduce damage to coral reefs.  For example, marine sanctuaries and protected areas have been established to reduce harvesting at reefs; this reduces the detrimental effects of overfishing and physical damage from boat anchors and groundings.

Land-based sources of pollution, however, are not effectively controlled by actions at the reef. Rather, these must be controlled in the watershed. Sediments, nutrients, and contaminants that are washed from the land are carried downstream to coastal zones where they ultimately can affect coral reefs and other marine ecosystems. 

The President’s Ocean Action Plan (2004) required EPA to develop the tools and knowledge necessary to protect coral reefs from land-based pollution using coral reef biological criteria, a tool to protect biological integrity under authority of the Clean Water Act (CWA). This became the motivation behind the EPA publication Coral Reef Biological Criteria: Using the Clean Water Act to Protect a National Treasure.  The manual was written for coral reef managers and stakeholders including nearby residents, tourists, fishermen, marine and land-based industries, conservation and environmental groups, research organizations and educational institutions.  It serves as a comprehensive guide on how to use the CWA and biological criteria to enhance coral reef protection efforts. 

EPA’s Patricia Bradley, the lead author of the publication, explains how it fits into the other work reef managers are already doing.  “The manual walks them through the steps very logically and links things back to what they’re already doing.  Coral reef managers are all working really hard, with limited resources.  But corals are continuing to degrade because of stressors outside the reef managers’ control—climate change and land-based pollution.”

Bradley emphasizes that “we need to be able to figure out how to minimize the stressors.  Biocriteria is one tool in the toolbox.” EPA has successfully applied the Clean Water Act and biocriteria to protect fresh water and estuarine systems, but not yet to any marine ecosystem.

A year in the making, the manual compiles an array of research performed by EPA scientists, research that is continuing to better facilitate development and implementation of coral reef biocriteria by jurisdictions.

The research team works with EPA’s Office of Water, using the Agency’s Ocean Survey Vessel BOLD to complete many of the reef assessments required to develop biocriteria approaches. Current efforts include collaborations with EPA Region 2 (which includes the Caribbean Sea surrounding Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands) where research divers assess the condition of reef corals, fish, sponges, and benthic invertebrates in an effort to understand which organisms and which measurements are responsive to human activities or disturbances in the watershed. Previous surveys have determined approaches for regional condition reporting for coral reefs, which have a patchy distribution.   

Coral reefs have declined as much as 20% over last 40 years and maybe as much as 80% in the Caribbean Sea.  They are a national treasure and a vital ecosystem to protect.  Despite actions already taken, the potential for biocriteria is too great to ignore.

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