Coral Species Added to IUCN Red List for First Time: What Does This Mean for MPAs?

MPA News

The 2007 edition of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, an annual assessment of the threat of extinction to Earth's plants and animals, contains corals for the first time. Ten coral species are now on the list, including two categorized as Critically Endangered and one described as Vulnerable. The 2007 Red List has also added 74 species of seaweed - up from just one species in the previous edition - with 10 of these seaweeds described as Critically Endangered.

Notably, all of these species are endemic to one place: the Galápagos Marine Reserve.

What do these listings mean for the Galápagos Marine Reserve? And what significance does the Red List (www.iucnredlist.org) hold for MPA practitioners in general? MPA News asked two experts for their insights:

  • Suzanne Livingstone, program officer for the Global Marine Species Assessment, a joint initiative of the IUCN Species Survival Commission and Conservation International that is focused on improving the documentation of marine species on the Red List; and
  • Graham Edgar, a biologist at Conservation International and the University of Tasmania (Australia) who assessed the coral and seaweed species for the 2007 Red List, and formerly served as head of research and conservation for the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos Islands.

MPA News: Does the listing of 10 coral species and 74 seaweed species from the Galápagos Marine Reserve (GMR) mean that the protected area there has been especially hard-hit by threats to these species? Or were there other factors involved in the geographically specific aspect of these listings?

Livingstone: Before this year, no corals and only one algae species had ever been on the Red List. The main reason was that no one had had the opportunity to assess these types of species for the Red List. Species on the list are terrestrially biased: of the 41,415 species there, only 1453 are marine. Now more effort is being placed on assessing the threat of extinction to marine species.

The Global Marine Species Assessment (GMSA) is focusing on reef-building corals as one of its first priorities, since they are important primary habitat-producing species. The GMSA is currently completing a global assessment of reef-building corals in a number of regional workshops. The Galápagos corals were the first of the whole group to be assessed, which explains their appearance in the 2007 Red List. Other coral assessment workshops have been held this year in the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific regions, and the results from those will appear in the 2008 Red List. Ultimately the GMSA will assess all marine fish and primary habitat-producing species whether they are in tropical or temperate regions.

Edgar: The Galápagos inshore biota include numerous, globally threatened species for several reasons:

  1. The isolation of the archipelago and unusual climatic regime has concentrated a very high level of endemism in a small area;
  2. Galápagos is the focal center for extreme El Niño warming events, greatly stressing marine plants and animals at those times; and
  3. Fisheries have functionally removed key predatory species, particularly spiny lobsters, causing sea urchin barrens to greatly expand and threaten macroalgal communities at the archipelago scale. Thus, there seems to be a particularly nasty interaction between a natural stressor (El Niño) and an anthropogenic stressor (over-exploitation of marine predators).

As it happens, the decline of the listed coral and seaweed species from Galápagos largely happened before no-take conservation and tourism zones were gazetted in the GMR in 2000. It is not yet possible to assess how well the GMR is assisting conservation of threatened marine species because catastrophic declines occur episodically with El Niño, and the last big El Niño event was in 1997-1998. Nevertheless, policing of no-take GMR conservation and tourism zones is currently inadequate, and rock lobster, shark, and grouper numbers continue to decline. So we have grave concerns about impacts on biodiversity of the next big warming event.

MPA News: Many MPA managers worldwide already have species at their sites that are described as threatened on the Red List, including groupers, sharks, various cetaceans, and other animals. Are there any positive aspects to having species in your MPA added to the Red List?

Livingstone: Yes. A common misconception is that the Red List consists only of threatened species. In fact, the aim is to get all species listed on theRed List whether they are currently threatened or not; species not threatened would be listed as Least Concern, Near Threatened, or Data Deficient. [Editor's note: the GMSA holds a goal of adding 20,000 marine species to the Red List by 2012.] This way, it could be seen what percentage of each group of species is threatened. Regarding reef-building coral species, for example, the GMSA will soon be able to review the group as a whole in terms of threat of extinction. Using Red List data, MPA managers will be able to see the level of threat of extinction to the species present in their site, and will also be able to identify what those threats are.

One of the other main uses of Red List data is in spatial analysis: identifying areas of high biodiversity, where and what the main threats are, and where protection and conservation are needed most. The generation of increased assessment information on marine species will help MPA managers to measure the effectiveness of their sites at a species level. The Red List assessments of each species are also updated every 5-10 years, which can assist managers with long-term monitoring and future planning.

Edgar: For biodiversity conservation, data generated by threatened species assessments and ecological monitoring are key to directing funding to where it can do the most good. From a pragmatic point of view, some funding institutions, such as Conservation International, specifically direct funds toward the safeguarding of threatened species, which can be helpful to MPA managers. Another useful aspect of having species added to the Red List is that it focuses international and national attention on the issue of marine conservation. With global listing of threatened species, politicians find it much harder to pretend that everything is fine. In the case of the corals and macroalgae in Galápagos, their addition to the Red List also draws attention to the fact that threats to the marine environment extend much further than the charismatic mammals, seabirds, and turtles. In fact, whole ecosystems are at risk.

For more information

Suzanne Livingstone, Department of Biological Sciences, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA 23529-0266, USA. Tel: +1 757 683 4197; E-mail: SRLiving [at] odu.edu

Graham Edgar, Tasmanian Aquaculture and Fisheries Institute, University of Tasmania, Taroona, TAS, Australia. Tel: +61 3 6227 7238; E-mail: g.edgar [at] utas.edu.au