Public comment can be as straightforward as copying and pasting parts of a manuscript. Yes, it’s that simple – and it’s been successfully done before. An ecologist was working on a review article (later given the apt title “Spineless Wonders”) about protections for marine invertebrate larvae. As part of the research process, he came across an open regulation proposal from the National Marine Fisheries Service to designate critical habitat for black abalone.
The proposal accounted for suitable settlement substrate and water quality for the normal settlement, growth, behavior and viability of black abalone. While the commenter recognized this as an important step forward towards designating critical habitat for black abalone, he also noticed that these measures focused only on the juvenile and adult life stages. There were no explicit considerations for the larvae, which is a highly vulnerable life stage that can be crucial to abalone recovery.
Black abalone are ‘r’ strategists, producing millions of gametes during broadcast spawning which fertilize in the water column to become planktonic larvae. Black abalone larvae then occupy the water column for up to 10 days before settlement onto rocky substrates.As with other marine species whose life cycles contain a planktonic larval stage, this point in the life cycle is a source of high mortality.
Low water quality from anthropogenic pollutants can result in even greater larval mortality and decreased growth, creating an even larger bottleneck at this stage.
The scientist used the beginning of his comment to point out that in order to realize the goals of the Endangered Species Act, every life stage of a species must be considered. This creates a legal mandate for the designation of critical habitat that protects each of those life stages. To illustrate this point, he drew a parallel to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s inclusion of sufficient water flow and water quality as primary elements of freshwater mussels’ critical habitats. He then went on to describe how best to determine whether abalone larvae occupy an area depending on their biology and behavior, as practically identifying occupation of a habitat is much more difficult for tiny, transparent larvae than for orcas or eagles.
In the final ruling, the agency incorporated the comment by designating the water above protected rocky habitats as critical habitat itself. This will ensure that required water quality standards must protect the entirety of the life cycle, and not just the juvenile or adult phases.
A key part of this successful comment was the way the scientist used his knowledge of how other species’ protections had been handled by NMFS and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Drawing parallels between a proposal and existing regulations can strengthen your comment by adding relevance and context . While this is not in the traditional repertoire for natural scientists, it is something that can be accomplished with the research skills that scientists have; for example, by conducting a short review of the materials available in the docket folder related to that regulation.
Contributed by: Mary Fisher & Natalie Lowell