Frequently Asked Questions on the Removal of Johnson's seagrass from the Endangered Species Act
Final rule to delist the threatened species, Johnson’s seagrass, from the Endangered Species Act.
What is NOAA Fisheries announcing today?
- NOAA Fisheries is announcing a final rule to delist Johnson’s seagrass and its critical habitat from the Endangered Species Act.
Why is NOAA Fisheries delisting Johnson’s seagrass from the Federal list of endangered and threatened species under the Endangered Species Act?
- A recently published study concluded that Johnson’s seagrass is a single female clone of the broadly distributed Indo-Pacific species, Halophila. ovalis, rather than a separate unique species. (Waycott et al. (2021), Genomics-based phylogenetic and population genetic analysis of global samples confirms Halophila johnsonii Eiseman as Halophila ovalis (R.Br.) Hook.f.)
- Johnson’s seagrass was originally described as a species in 1980 based on morphological differences from other Atlantic Ocean Halophila species, and since then, the taxonomic status of H. johnsonii has been repeatedly called into question.
- Early genetic and morphological work showed that Johnson’s seagrass was similar to H. ovalis (located in the Indo-Pacific). Researchers recently placed it in the “H. ovalis complex” (Waycott et. al. 2002, Short et al. 2010), adding to the uncertainty of the species.
- To clarify the taxonomic status of Johnson’s seagrass, NOAA Fisheries funded several projects over the past decade, employing new genetic tools and innovative ways to address this important question.
What new technology allowed for this scientific clarification?
- Research led by Michelle Waycott (Waycott et al. 2021) used multiple techniques to resolve species relationships within the Halophila genus.
- The combination of two relatively new and novel genetic approaches provided unambiguous evidence that H. johnsonii is an individual clone indistinguishable from H. ovalis.
Will this species have other protections if delisted as threatened under the Endangered Species Act?
- Yes, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council designated all seagrasses as Essential Fish Habitat and Habitat Areas of Particular Concern under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. All seagrass species in Florida retain federal protections under these two mechanisms.
What is the process for delisting a species under the Endangered Species Act?
- The process for delisting includes: (1) publication of a proposed rule in the Federal Register (86 FR 72908), (2) a public comment period on the proposed rule, and (3) publication of a final rule that considers and addresses any public comments received and notes when the final rule will become effective.
Why move ahead with a rule to delist before a formal name change?
- NOAA Fisheries intends to move ahead with a rule to delist because the best scientific data supports this decision and we want to ensure the agency is not placing undue regulatory burdens on the public during the renaming process.
- Seagrass taxonomy is determined by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (https://www.iapt-taxon.org/nomen/main.php), and updated by meetings of the International Botanical Congress. The next meeting will be held in 2024, so a formal name change may not occur until then.
Where is Johnson’s seagrass found?
- Johnson’s seagrass is only found within Florida’s east coast lagoon system from just north of Sebastian Inlet to northern Biscayne Bay.
- It is found within a wide range of environmental conditions and appears to thrive in dynamic (changing) and disturbed habitats.
- Johnson’s seagrass often co-occurs with other Florida seagrass species such as paddle grass (H. decipiens), star grass (H. engelmannii), and shoal grass (Halodule wrightii)
When was Johnson’s seagrass originally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act?
- Johnson’s seagrass was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1998.
- Its critical habitat was designated in 2000.
Why was Johnson’s seagrass listed as threatened?
- It had the smallest geographic distribution of any seagrass species worldwide, showed no ability to reproduce sexually (creation of seeds), and exhibited a lack of genetic diversity, which could limit its ability to overcome additional threats.
How was Johnson’s seagrass protected under the Endangered Species Act?
- Johnson’s seagrass received several protections under the Endangered Species Act; most notably the requirement for federal action agencies to ensure their proposed projects would not jeopardize its continued existence.
- Critical habitat for Johnson’s seagrass provided additional protections for nine areas within the Florida east coast lagoon system where the species was known to occur. Federal action agencies had to ensure any projects proposed within the critical habitat boundaries would not destroy or adversely modify the critical habitat.
- An action agency is any federal agency or federally recognized tribe that funds, authorizes, or carries out projects that could affect protected species for example: the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, etc.
How is Johnson’s seagrass protected under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act?
- The Sustainable Fisheries Act Amendment of 1996 to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, identifying the contribution of habitat loss and degradation on fishery declines, amended the Magnuson-Stevens Act to create a program to protect Essential Fish Habitat.
- The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council designates all seagrasses as Essential Fish Habitat and Habitat Areas of Particular Concern within their jurisdictional boundaries.
- Essential Fish Habitat is defined as waters and substrates necessary to fish for spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth to maturity.
- Essential Fish Habitat that is particularly important to the long-term productivity of populations of one or more managed species, or particularly vulnerable to degradation, should be identified as Habitat Areas of Particular Concern to help provide additional focus for conservation efforts.
- Action agencies must consult with NOAA to ensure their proposed actions will not adversely affect Essential Fish Habitat.
Do action agencies still need to consult with NOAA Fisheries on the species under Endangered Species Act and Magnuson-Stevens Act?
- Endangered Species Act: No, action agencies no longer need to consult with our agency on Johnson’s seagrass. NOAA Fisheries will no longer consider effects to Johnson’s seagrass or its critical habitat during Endangered Species Act consultation.
- Magnuson-Stevens Act: This seagrass will continue to receive protections as essential fish habitat for federally managed fish species under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Federal agencies (e.g., U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) shall consult with NOAA Fisheries on any action that may adversely affect essential fish habitat.
Will NOAA Fisheries characterize this species as a non-native, exotic, or invasive?
- No, this is a long-established species in southeastern Florida known as Halophila ovalis, and provides ecological services consistent with other seagrass species in the environments in which it is found.
- There is no indication that Johnson’s seagrass outcompetes other native seagrasses.