Seven corals found in Florida Keys waters could be added to the list of oceanic species federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The decision announced Friday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will bring federal officials to the Keys for public comment hearings Jan. 15 and 16.
"We've watched the changes on our reef over the years and the loss of coral has been significant," said Judy Halas of Key Largo, who has been diving Keys reefs for more than four decades as an author and activist.
NOAA proposes to list seven Caribbean and Florida coral species as endangered and two more as threatened.
Staghorn coral and elkhorn coral, currently the only local corals listed as threatened, would be moved to endangered status under the plan.
Added to the list as endangered would be pillar coral, boulder star coral, mountain star coral and star coral. Lamarck's sheet coral and elliptical star coral are being considered for listing as threatened.
"All of the corals mentioned for the Caribbean are found in the Keys," said Karrie Carnes, spokeswoman for the Florida Keys National Marine sanctuary.
NOAA also proposes to list seven Pacific Ocean coral species as endangered and 52 Pacific corals as threatened.
"This proposal to list these corals will help to draw attention to the sensitivity of global corals and coral reefs to The Big Four of human disturbances in the oceans: Overfishing, pollution, climate change and [ocean] acidification," said John Ogden, marine professor emeritus from the University of South Florida and an advisor to the Keys sanctuary.
Monroe County hearings on the coral endangered-species designation take place:
--7 to 9 p.m. Jan 15 at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park visitor center, mile marker 102.6 oceanside in Key Largo.
--7 to 9 p.m. Jan. 16 at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, 35 E. Quay Road at the Truman Waterfront in Key West.
The decision to move forward with Endangered Species Act listing was prompted by a court order to act on a 2009 petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity.
"It's a wake-up call telling us our coral reefs are dying and need federal protection," said Miyoko Sakashita, ocean director for the center.
Ocean warming and acidification caused by greenhouse gases are "a primary driver of coral bleaching and disease," says a NOAA assessment of coral threats.
Listing as an endangered or threatened species generally limits activities that could harm the species.
Florida's corals already receive protection under state law and the Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Some additional habitat protections could be enacted.
"By making these corals endangered species, we may be able to get more support for research, restoration and other scientific efforts," Halas said.
"Corals provide habitat to support fisheries that feed millions of people, and generate jobs and income to local economies through recreation, tourism and fisheries," NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco said in a statement.
For information on the coral proposal and how to submit comments, go to www.nmfs.noaa.gov/stories/2012/11/82corals.html. ___