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CI Backs Remote Island Community's Conservation Efforts
Jennifer Shatwell, Staff Writer

Conservation International (CI) is putting its scientific muscle behind local efforts to safeguard Saba Bank, a massive undersea mountain southeast of Puerto Rico. Encircled by about 85 square miles of actively growing coral reef, Saba Bank is the third largest atoll on Earth and, until recently, was one of the least-explored places in the Caribbean. In January 2006, CI deployed a team of scientists in response to rising local concerns about oil tanker traffic and anchoring in the area. The scientists found unexpectedly high levels of biodiversity around Saba Bank and discovered at least 14 new species in as many days. The data collected from the CI Marine Rapid Assessment Program's (RAP) expedition will strengthen a small island community’s petition for international protection.

Saba Island is located about 12 miles from Saba Bank and is one of the Windward Islands of the Netherlands Antilles. A single road – built locally by hand and known only as "the road" – connects the island's four towns and roughly 1,500 inhabitants. Because there is no room for agriculture on their island of 5 square miles, Sabans rely on tourists that come to bask in Caribbean isolation or scuba dive off the island's coast. They also earn a significant portion of their livelihoods from fishing off Saba Bank. When Sabans became aware of increasing damage to the atoll from ship traffic and anchoring, they promptly sought help.

CI's RAP program mobilized an interagency research team to document the largely unknown marine ecosystem, the first step in a partnership with the Department of Environment and Nature of the Netherlands Antilles (MINA) and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. If the atoll proved to harbor significant biodiversity under specific threat, it could potentially qualify for international protection. In less than two weeks, with critical participation by members of the Saban fishing community and the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA), the research team found precisely what they were hoping for – and much more.

"Saba Bank is extraordinary for biodiversity, even more than we expected," says CI scientist Michael Smith. "Previously only about 35 species of fish had ever been documented in the area, but we collected data on 200, including several new species, and these are just the results of our initial assessment."

Scientists also declared Saba Bank to be by far the richest location for seaweed diversity ever discovered in the Caribbean – a distinction formerly held by Diamond Rock off the coast of Martinique. At least 12 new species of seaweed were discovered around the atoll, including an abundance of commercially valuable species. This is particularly significant for a community looking to diversify its economy.

Saba Bank is threatened by the bustling oil transshipment depot on nearby St. Eustatius Island. Supertankers stop there to transfer oil to smaller ships that can enter countries without deep-water ports. Rather than pay minimal mooring fees at St. Eustatius, tankers dock for free just a few miles away at Saba Bank.

From the research team's accounts, the potential hazards associated with such tanker traffic are clear. Tankers disturb the fish populations the local fishing community relies on and pose a physical threat to fisherman in smaller vessels. Tankers may be striking the bank on arrival and departure, destroying delicate marine species on startup and while traveling, and damaging coral as they anchor. While there have been no major oil spills yet, the transfer process is a messy one and regularly involves small spills. The chemicals used to disperse oil, so that it doesn't visually tarnish the atoll, actually do more harm to the ecosystem than allowing the oil to float and disperse naturally.

"When I look west from my balcony, I often see tankers at the inner edge of Saba Bank," reported one local fisherman to members of the expedition team. "There should be no-anchor zones. For things to survive there must be stricter controls, and we must accept the measures to come."

The Saba Bank expedition represents CI's first marine RAP in the Caribbean and will launch a new Dutch Caribbean conservation initiative. CI hopes to provide a scientific basis for official designation of Saba Bank as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) by the International Maritime Organization. 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 sustainable economic activities, including ecotourism and safe harvesting of seaweed and fish.

"It's now widely accepted that a biodiversity-rich place, when properly protected, will seed biodiversity elsewhere," says Smith. "Saba Bank is such a place, a keystone location of extraordinary significance to the entire Caribbean."

Related Links:
> Feature Story: Deep Sea Bottom Trawling
> Feature Story: The Net Loss of Overfishing
> Feature Story: Smooth Sailing Ahead for Cruise Industry
> Feature Story: Kiribati Safeguards Entire Coral Archipelago
> Feature Story: Tsunami Survivors Replant, Rebuild, and Restore
> Conservation Regions: Priority Areas: Key Marine Regions
> CABS: Marine Rapid Assessment Program (RAP)
> Conservation Programs: Rapid Assessment Program (RAP)
> Hotspots: Caribbean
> Press Release: Expedition Discovers Marine Treasures In Netherlands Antilles


© Diane Littler
Scientists on the Marine RAP expedition discovered at least a dozen new species of seaweed, including this unique new species of Sargassum.

© Diane Littler
RAP scientists determined Saba Bank to be the richest place in the Caribbean for seaweed diversity. This new Dictoyota species was among their discoveries.

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

© Smithsonian Institution
This new species of goby (Lythrypnus sp.) was collected from the seafloor around Saba Bank.

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