Florida Straits Is Atlantic's Biological Hotspot

WASHINGTON, DC, August 12, 2003 (ENS) The single richest concentration of marine life in the Atlantic Ocean lies some 10 miles off the tip of Southern Florida within the Florida Straits, say scientists who have conducted a survey of some 1,200 species of marine fish and other animals in the Atlantic.

And the scientists report that the Florida Straits has the Atlantic's greatest concentration of endemic species - many of which are considered "micro-endemics" or species with ranges restricted to very small geographical features.

The findings could have far reaching implications for efforts to protect biological diversity, says Michael Smith, Caribbean biodiversity fellow with the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS) at Conservation International (CI), which spearheaded the study.

"Most people believe that marine species have large ranges and can just swim their way out of trouble," Smith said. "But we now know that there are hundreds of species in the Florida Straits, and in the broader Caribbean region, with ranges so small that even localized human activities can cause their extinction." fish

The diversity of marine life is remarkable across much of the tropical western Atlantic, but the Florida Straits is a hotspot among hotspots. (Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)
The study, which the scientists say is the most comprehensive of its kind, was initiated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Some 84 scientists carried out the study, which was published in a three-volume series entitled, "The Living Marine Resources of the Western Central Atlantic."

Scientists from CABS at CI and Old Dominion University mapped close to 1,200 species of marine fish and other animals in the tropical western Atlantic Ocean. It has been widely established that this region contains the most diversity in the Atlantic, but until now scientist were not sure where specific hotspots reside.

Their findings could prove a key tool in identifying the areas of highest priority for protection of Atlantic species.

Some 25 percent of the fish species covered by the study are endemic to the Caribbean and nearby seas - a contrast to the widespread view that marine species tend to have broad distributions.

And more than half of the species mapped by the scientists were found in the Florida Straits. These waters, which separate Florida from Cuba and the Bahamas, contain some 25 species found nowhere else.

The species endemic to the Florida Straits include blind skates, dwarf sharks, searobins and the Atlantic saw shark.

The second leading area in the Atlantic for marine species richness and endemism lies in southern Caribbean waters along the coasts of Colombia, Venezuela, Netherlands Antilles, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The scientists report another unexpected finding from the survey is that many unique species live in deep water. These species tend to reproduce at very low rates and their populations can be gravely affected by fishing and destructive fishing practices such as deepwater trawling. brain

The fragility of some underwater life, including this brain coral, has many concerned about the impact of some fishing practices. (Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
The survey underscores the need to curtail or alter destructive fishing methods, dredging of estuaries and harbors, as well as the laying of natural gas pipelines on the sea floor, the scientists report.

It is vital to recognize how the impacts of development can reach even the most remote islands and keys, notes Kent Carpenter, a professor at Old Dominion University.

"Anyone who remembers the building of an airstrip that eliminated a dozen of Bermuda's marine species in the 1940s knows that humans can easily wipe out large numbers of creatures in a single careless act," said Carpenter. "We have found species in all parts of the Caribbean region with very tiny ranges. They can be put at risk by the kinds of local development that are occurring every day on every coast in the region."

The study was part of FAO's program to publish scientific guides about marine biodiversity in several ocean areas.

Species were mapped individually by leading marine scientists and were analyzed at CABS at CI in order to find concentrations of endemic species and other patterns of distribution.