Two new species of soft corals were discovered in a recent expedition to Saba Bank, Netherlands Antilles, which involved leading experts from the Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC), the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) at the University of Miami. The scientists identified soft corals (aka sea fans, or gorgonians), and crustaceans (crabs and shrimp), collecting forty species of soft corals and nearly 100 different species of crustaceans in ten days of scuba diving and exploration on the Saba Bank. Saba Bank is the third largest atoll in the world, and the largest in the Caribbean.
Peter Etnoyer, gorgonian expert from Harte Research Institute (HRI) at TAMU-CC adds, "Gorgonian species can be difficult to distinguish from each other. You have to look at microscopic features of their skeletons. However, this new species was fairly obvious. It differs in color and shape." His colleague, and third gorgonian expert on the team, Herman Wirshing from RSMAS, concludes "we will have to do more work to carefully verify and describe all of the diagnostic characteristics of this new gorgonian, but we can already conclude that it belongs to the genus Pterogorgia, in which so far only three species are known." The second new species found is a deep-water gorgonian from the genus Lytreia which is currently comprised of only one species.
The crustacean experts were also quite satisfied with their results. Dr. Thomas Shirley, Endowed Chair of Biodiversity and Conservation Science of HRI at TAMU-CC, says: "The collections from this expedition provide an important baseline on which to measure future changes. Tankers anchoring on the Bank introduce the risk of invasive species from fouling organisms on the hull of the ships, or from ballast water carried in their tanks. We now have a good impression of the present crustacean fauna."
Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) capable of 200 m depths, looking at the scar of the anchor of a large tanker.
New species of Gorgonian coral found on Saba Bank, Pterogorgia nsp. in only 20 m depth.
Morgan Kilgour, also a crustacean expert at the HRI, was pleased by the diversity of crustaceans they are finding on the Saba Bank. "In only 6 days of diving and trapping in the deeper waters we have already found about 100 different species of crabs and shrimp, and we still have a few days to go." The collecting work in deep water was greatly facilitated by the help and knowledge of local Saban fisherman Nicky Johnson who provided the team with effective traps and took them to the right places.
The expedition to the Saba Bank is part of an ongoing effort from the Department of Environment (MINA) of the Netherlands Antilles to develop a good management plan for the Bank. With funding from USONA, the organization that distributes development funding coming from the Netherlands, a project was started in June of this year to collect as much knowledge as possible of the Bank, building on work that was done before, such as the first Rapid Assessment expedition by Conservation International in 2006 (who also contributed a representative to this expedition), the hydrographic survey of the Dutch Hydrographic Service also in 2006, and a year-long fishery survey by fishery officer Faisal Dilrosun in 2000.
Project leader Paul Hoetjes of MINA says: "At the end of this year we will have a well informed draft management plan, as well as draft legislation where necessary, and a finalized proposal to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to recognize the Saba Bank as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area or PSSA. We need this PSSA status in order to be able to regulate international shipping over the parts of the Saba Bank that lie outside the territorial waters of Saba but in the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Netherlands Antilles."
According to Hoetjes, however, the results of this project will only be the start of the real work. "The biodiversity of the Bank exceeds all expectations. Twenty new species of sea weeds discovered last year establish the Bank as the richest area in the Caribbean for sea weeds. We may now find it the richest area in the Caribbean for gorgonian corals as well. But there is still a great deal of work to be done to further discover the full richness of biodiversity of the Bank. So far we have only lifted a tip of the veil. Scientific survey work must continue in the future. We also need to find the means to implement the management plan we are drafting and find ways to enforce existing and new regulations."
Hoetjes also warns that the approval by the IMO of the PSSA status will be a process that will take years to complete, but, he concludes, "The conservation of biodiversity and the wise use of it is always difficult to achieve. Saba Bank is no exception to this rule, but I know the people of Saba really support this, and that is a major factor for success."
Some videoclips can watched here on YouTube.
Source: Department of Environment and Nature (MINA) of the Netherlands Antilles