By Curtis Morgan
Source: MiamiHerald.com 
Two rare corals found off South Florida and throughout the Caribbean have been designated for federal protection -- the first corals named to the list of threatened and endangered species.
The National Marine Fisheries Service announced Thursday that elkhorn and staghorn corals, large and spectacular species with branches that resemble antlers, had declined sharply enough to qualify as being threatened with extinction.
Off the Keys, scientists estimate as much as 90 percent of both corals, which once formed dense forests off the Florida Keys and served as major reef builders, have died since the 1970s. Losses are even higher in the Caribbean.
''The decline was phenomenal,'' said Brian Keller, science coordinator for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which includes all the waters off the Keys.
Pollution, algae, sediment and a host of diseases, from black-band and white-band disease to white plague, have been blamed, along with hurricanes and rising sea temperatures, which has been linked to coral bleaching.
Brent Plater, a staff attorney with California-based Center for Biological Diversity, which two years ago filed a petition to have the corals elevated from ''species of special concern,'' said the decision should help focus research on coral declines and could result in additional protections for the corals.
Coral is already protected in the 3,843-square-mile Keys sanctuary, which stretches from Biscayne National Park to the Dry Tortugas, but measures could be expanded to other areas or added. Staghorn and elkhorn also are found off Miami-Dade and Broward counties, as well as off Texas.
The fisheries service made the announcement at a coral reef task force meeting in Washington, D.C. A spokesman said the listing will become official when a notice is published in the Federal Register next week.
A series of public meetings, including in the Florida Keys, to develop a management and recovery plan. Some additional restrictions could result but, Keller said, ``We don't know yet what those will be.''
Plater hoped the scrutiny would extend beyond direct impacts from divers or coastal development. The increasing number of hurricanes, rising water temperatures and spreading diseases all had one thing in common, he said.
''The engine driving all of those things is global warming,'' he said. ``Not only are we going to be looking at local impacts from beach restoration, we need to think and act globally.''