The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said Wednesday that it would designate 20 species of coral as “threatened.”
The listing under the Endangered Species Act could eventually bring restrictions on certain activities that harm coral, like fishing, pollution or dredging. Wednesday’s listing decision did not bring any restrictions itself.
“Coral reefs are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth, providing habitat for many marine species,” Eileen Sobeck, NOAA’s assistant administrator for fisheries, said in a statement.
“Protecting and conserving these biologically rich ecosystems is essential, and the Endangered Species Act gives us the tools to conserve and recover those corals most in need of protection.”
The newly listed coral species live in U.S. waters in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Some species’ numbers have declined by up to 90 percent from their peaks, the agency said.
NOAA said the decision came after the most extensive rulemaking process the agency has ever undertaken, which lasted nearly five years.
Wednesday’s listings were the result of a petition filed in 2009 by the Center for Biological Diversity to add 83 coral species to the two that had already been protected.
NOAA, which has responsibility over marine animals for the Endangered Species Act, whittled the list down to 66 when it proposed protections in 2012. The proposed listings were a mix of threatened and endangered, a designation that brings more restrictions.
NOAA is still considering three more coral species for listing.