Caribbean’s most important coral reefs

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Some of the Caribbean’s most important coral reefs may not be the ones that grace island shorelines but ones much deeper along the edges of gently sloping shelves, according to early findings by researcher Jorge Garcia.

Presenting his work on deep-water corals of Puerto Rico to the Caribbean Fishery Management Council last week, Garcia said that these reefs, hidden up to 300 feet below the surface, provide refuge and homes to many of the commercially important fish species such as hind and grouper.

“These provide residential and foraging areas for commercially important species,” he said.

Garcia said many of these reefs have not been identified in the Virgin Islands but would occur in gently sloping areas of the seafloor on the edges of the shelf. Potential sites have been identified on the north slope of St. Thomas, the southwest corner of St. Croix and the southeast and east slopes of St. John.

Garcia said exploratory dives in these areas would determine whether coral colonies exist there, and then these reefs could be protected.

Garcia said that as shallower reefs are exhausted of commercial fish populations, fishermen are moving outward and may now be fishing these deeper communities. These habitats need to be studied in their “semi-pristine” state before fishing pressures are applied.

“These commercial species are the first to vanish when you apply the effort,” he said.

“I’m concerned that there would be exploitation of these before they are well known.”

Garcia studied similar deep-water communities off the coast of Puerto Rico and found thriving corals, sponges and numerous fish species.

The cataloguing of fish and coral species in these deep-water regions is not comprehensive, and Garcia said more intensive sampling must be continued.

Source: Virgin Island Daily News