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NOAA Fisheries proposes habitat protection for threatened corals in Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

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Several schools of fish swim above the reef including bluestripe snappers / ta‘ape (Lutjanus kasmira), bluestripe butterflyfish / kīkākapu (Chaetodon fremblii), milletseed butterflyfish / lauwiliwili (Chaetodon miliaris), pennant butterflyfish (Heniochus diphreutes), pyramid butterflyfish (Hemitaurichthys polylepis), and surgeonfish (Acanthuridae). The corals lobe coral / pōhaku puna (Porites lobata) and table coral (Acropora cytherea) make up the reef below at French Frigate Shoals in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. (Photo by: James Watt/NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries)

NOAA Fisheries has proposed a rule to designate critical habitat for five threatened reef-building coral species in the Pacific Islands region. This rule refines an earlier proposal in 2020 for Endangered Species Act-listed Indo-Pacific coral species following the inclusion of new data and information received from the community during the previous public comment period.

“Pacific coral reefs play an important role in shoreline protection, while also supporting the local economy and serving as biodiverse ecosystems,” said Dawn Golden, assistant regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office. “Despite facing threats – including temperature rise and pollution – designating critical habitat aims to minimize the impacts of these threats and promote coral resilience.”

A diver observing various fish including Oval Chromis damselfish (Chromis ovalis), Threespot damselfish (Chromis verater), bigscale soldierfish / ʻūʻū (Myripristis berndti) and bluestripe snapper / taʻape (Lutjanus kasmira) swimming near Lobe coral / pōhaku puna (Porites lobata) at Pearl & Hermes Atoll in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. (Photo by: James Watt/NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries)

Under the Endangered Species Act, NOAA Fisheries is proposing to designate areas containing habitat characteristics where Acropora globicepsA. retusaA. speciosaEuphyllia paradivisa, and Isopora crateriformis reproduce, disperse, settle and mature. These include select locations in the waters around 16 islands and atolls:

  • Northwestern Hawaiian Islands – Lalo (French Frigate Shoals) in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument
  • American Samoa – Ofu-Olosega; Tutuila and Ta`u in the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa; and Rose Atoll, in the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument and the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa
  • Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands – Rota; Aguijan; Tinian; Saipan; Alamagan; Pagan; and Maug Islands and Uracas in the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument
  • Guam
  • Pacific Remote Islands Area – Palmyra and Johnston Atolls in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument
Seamounts are home to coral communities at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. (Photo Courtesy: NOAA)

The depth range of the proposed critical habitat depends on the occurrence of specific coral species with a minimum range of 0–10 m (0–33 ft) and maximum range of 0–50 m (0–164 ft). Click here for maps.

If finalized, the designation would not create any new regulations or restrictions on fisheries. Only federal agencies are directly affected by a critical habitat designation; non-federal entities may be affected if their activities involve federal funding, permitting or authorization.

“Our team at the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Island Regional Office is appreciative of the feedback from the territories and the local communities. Their involvement and input led to the refinement of the proposed rule,” added Golden. “This new proposal is a reflection of their valuable data and input throughout this process.”


Following the feedback received during the public comment period for the proposed critical habitat made in 2020, the changes in this proposed rule include: the removal of two species and four islands for consideration, the addition of three islands and more specific mapping of critical habitat.

Comments on the proposed rule can be submitted from Nov. 30 through Feb. 28. Comments can be submitted online at, under docket number NOAA-NMFS-2016-0131 for the proposed critical habitat.


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