Caribbean attoll rich in new species

An underwater mountain that forms the world’s third-largest atoll has the richest diversity of marine life ever found in the Caribbean, but scientists who explored the area in January say tanker traffic to and from a nearby petroleum depot is damaging the unique ecosystem.

The two-week scientific expedition to Saba Bank Atoll last month discovered new species of fish, seaweed and other marine creatures on the seamount 250 kilometres (155 miles) southeast of Puerto Rico. It is 12 miles from Saba Island, one of the Windward Islands of the Netherlands Antilles.

Although plagued by high winds and strong currents during their dives, scientists from Conservation International (CI), the Netherlands Antilles government, and the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History found 150 more fish species than had been known to inhabit the region and vast beds of diverse seaweed, including at least a dozen possible new species.

“We discovered a new species literally every day we were there,” said Michael Smith, director of CI’s Caribbean Biodiversity Initiative. Among the new fish species found were two types of gobi, while the total number of fish species recorded reached 200, compared to fewer than 50 known to swim these waters before the expedition.

Among 200 fish collected from Saba Bank was this seven-spined goby. It represents a genus and species completely new to science.

The Saba Marine Park was established in 1987, not to help repair a damaged environment, but to safeguard the biodiverse marine life there. One of the few self-sustaining marine parks in the world, Saba is enjoyed by divers and sailors from around the world.

But the submerged atoll and its coral beds are being destroyed by the oil supertankers that use a petroleum trans-shipment depot on neighboring St. Eustatius Island. The fragile ecosystems of Saba Bank are raked by anchors and chains of ships that wait at the atoll to avoid anchoring fees in territorial waters of St. Eustatius.

Paul Hoetjes, marine biologist with the Ministry of Nature Affairs for the Netherlands Antilles, said the report of the scientific expedition is crucial to getting the area protected to benefit local populations.

“The community of about 1,500 people on nearby Saba Island derives a large part of its economy from the atoll, and the atoll is being damaged,” Hoetjes said.

The large ships endanger local fishermen in their small boats, forcing them away from traditional fishing grounds and causing the loss of fish pots that become so-called ”ghost traps” drifting through the ocean harming fish populations.

Leroy Peterson, a Saba fisherman, said, “Some of the scientists actually found new species not located anywhere else. There should be no-anchor zones. For things to survive there must be stricter controls.”

Conservation International is supporting local efforts to safeguard Saba Bank. The unprecedented richness of marine life and vulnerability of the atoll’s coral beds make Saba Bank a prime candidate for designation as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) under the International Maritime Organization, the scientists say.

As a PSSA, Saba Bank could be protected by no-anchor zones and safe passageways for tankers. Over the next several years, CI will work directly with the Saba Island government and community, along with MINA and the DCNA, to design zoning plans, and policy and media campaigns. There is also potential for developing existing sustainable economic activities, including ecotourism, diving and safe harvesting of seaweed and fish.