The proposal unveiled Friday lists 19 ways corals are under assault, including overfishing, pollution, heat-stroke, disease and dissolving in seawater that is turning more acidic, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service spent more than three years reviewing the health of reef-building corals before proposing their protection.
"Our science team found that these corals face many, many threats," said Lance Smith, a supervisory biologist in the fisheries service in Honolulu. "When you put them together, they act in ominous ways."
Currently, a third of these reef-building corals are listed as threatened with extinction by the World Conservation Union.
Smith said that protecting corals may do little to combat "global threats," such as hot water causing bleaching and the spread of disease, but may help fight local threats, such as overfishing and pollution.
"If you reduce the local threats," Smith said, "corals are more likely to be resilient to the global threats."
The non-profit Center for Biological Diversity sued in federal court to push the government to act. A decision on federal protection must be completed within a year, the Times said.