Two new species of soft corals were discovered during an October expedition to Saba Bank, Netherlands Antilles, the largest atoll in the Caribbean. Herman Wirshing, a graduate student from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science's Biology and Fisheries Division, joined leading coral reef experts from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAM-CC), and the Universidad de los Andes in Columbia, to help identify and quantify soft coral and crustacean species on the Bank.
The team collected 40 species of soft corals and nearly 100 different species of crustaceans in just ten days of SCUBA diving and exploration. One of the likely new species was found in deep water (70 m), and the other, surprisingly, was found to be common in shallow water (20 m).
“Since the gorgonians of the Caribbean are a well-known group of corals with only a limited number of species, the discovery of a new species in the shallowest parts of the Bank was quite unexpected,” said Peter Etnoyer, a gorgonian expert from the Harte Research Institute (HRI) at TAMU-CC, and the researcher who asked Wirshing to participate in this expedition. Wirshing concludes, “we will have to do more work to carefully verify and describe all of the diagnostic characteristics of this new shallow water gorgonian, but we can already conclude that it belongs to the genus Pterogorgia, in which so far only three species are known.”
The expedition is part of an ongoing effort from the Department of the Environment of the Netherlands Antilles (MINA) to develop a sound management plan for the Bank. With funding from USONA, the organization that distributes development funding from the Netherlands, a project was started in June of this year to collect as much knowledge as possible about the Bank. The effort is built upon previous work in the region, including the first rapid assessment expedition by Conservation International in 2006 (which also contributed a representative to this expedition) surveys by the Dutch Hydrographic Service in 2006 and a yearlong fisheries survey conducted in 2000.
Project leader Paul Hoetjes of MINA is hopeful that by the end of the year a well-structured draft of the proposed management plan and legislation to support it, as well as a finalized proposal to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will be prepared. The goal is to have the Saba Bank designated as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA), which will help to regulate shipping over the parts of the Bank that lie outside the territorial waters of Saba, but are still located within the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Netherlands Antilles.
Dr. Juan Sanchez of the Universidad de los Andes in Columbia, a leading expert on gorgonian corals and crustaceans, Dr. Thomas Shirley, Endowed Chair of Biodiversity and Conservation Science of HRI at TAMU-CC, also participated in the expedition. The data and samples collected from this cruise will provide an important baseline of present crustacean species on which future changes in the ecosystem can be measured.
“This expedition to the Saba Bank was not only an excellent opportunity to demonstrate both qualitatively and quantitatively the rich biodiversity of this relatively unexplored area, but also to work with some of the world's leading experts in gorgonian and crustacean biology, as well as government organizations to help build and maintain a more sustainable and thriving ecosystem in the area,” said Wirshing.
Wirshing is currently a Ph.D. student studying molecular systematics of hard corals and gorgonian corals with Rosenstiel professor, Dr. Andrew Baker. His research will help scientists better understand the natural history and diversity of hard and soft coral ecosystems.
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