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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Environmental emergency declared over invasive coral species

Natural and Environmental Resources Secretary Anaís Rodríguez Vega

By The Star Staff

Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) Secretary Anaís Rodríguez Vega on Tuesday declared an emergency for marine ecosystems, coral reefs and protected species due to the arrival of the octocoral species of the Xeniidae family, which could cause economic and environmental damage in Puerto Rico and constitute an environmental and ecological emergency.

“There is an urgent need to avoid and prevent continued and irreparable damage to coral reefs and associated marine life,” Rodríguez Vega said in a written statement. “Declaring an emergency and placing these octocorals on the list of invasive species allows us to implement a rapid and comprehensive response to preserve the diversity and ecological integrity of Puerto Rico’s marine ecosystems.”

Through Administrative Order No. 2024-03, signed last Friday, Rodríguez Vega also declared the species of octocorals or octocoralaria (Octocorallia), also known as alcyonaria (Alcyonaria), of the family Xeniidae, invasive. The presence of the organism was corroborated in a reef of grooves and spurs in the offshore area from Lajas to Guánica in February, at a depth of 75 feet. Subsequently, three additional patches of the organism were identified in Guayanilla, Guánica and Caja de Muertos in Ponce.

The administrative order adopts the “Emergency Response Strategy for Invasive Coral of the Xeniidae Family” as a guide for actions to be implemented. Those actions will be conducted in collaboration with the DNER’s Protected Species and Coral Conservation & Management programs.

In accordance with the strategy, the export or sale of removed organisms of the family Xeniidae (invasive pulsating coral) is prohibited. In addition, the implementation of best management practices for the discharge of ballast water from ships will be encouraged to help prevent the transmission of pathogens, invasive species and pollution.

Likewise, collaboration with entities and volunteers in the implementation of the strategies and their dissemination will be a priority, among other measures that the DNER will take, the secretary said.

In the period from 2000 to 2005, the intentional introduction of a species of octocoral from the Indo-Pacific in Venezuela by people associated with the aquarium industry was reported. That octocoral was later identified as Unomia stolonifera, of the family Xeniidae. This species, like others within this family, proliferates quickly and easily asexually, in addition to its sexual reproduction. The organisms grow on all types of marine ecosystems, at different depths, suffocating sessile marine organisms and displacing those that have motil capacity, causing a change in the affected marine ecosystems, and in turn causing a decrease in the diversity and density of species and coral cover.

However, actions to control the species in Venezuela did not begin until 2021.

It has now been determined that the invasive octocoral are spreading rapidly and uncontrollably in a new region, covering large areas, which led to an alert being issued to other countries about the possibility of the organism spreading.

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