SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Scientists have discovered what they believe is a new fish species and at least 20 types of previously unknown seaweeds during a recent expedition to one of the Caribbean's most diverse marine areas — a coral-covered underwater mountain off the Dutch island of Saba.
It could take a year before researchers confirm the findings, which local fishermen, working with the Dutch Antillean government, are hoping to use to lobby authorities to steer oil tankers away from the Saba Bank Atoll to protect their livelihoods and the rich underwater life.
During their two weeks at the atoll, divers braved 12-foot seas to plunge 100 feet underwater twice daily to collect marine samples. Their efforts turned up unique striped patterns on the seaweeds and one fish that researchers believe is new to science: a goby with orange spots.
"We were literally discovering a species every day, that's truly remarkable" said Michael Smith, a senior research scientist at Conservation International, which funded the January expedition along with the Netherlands Ministry of Traffic and Water Management and Miami-based cruise operator Royal Caribbean's Ocean Fund. "There aren't very many places where you can still do that in the Caribbean or very close to North America."
Not to be outdone by the fish discovery were the seaweed findings.
Smith called the area "the epicenter of diversity for seaweeds in the Caribbean."
Mark Littler, a marine botanist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, said his dives revealed landscapes that he compared to "mini rain forests."
They swam through acres of red, green and brown seaweed — some that looked like ferns or were several feet high.
"It's extremely important habitat," said Littler, who has studied seaweeds worldwide the last 30 years. "We do work all over the Caribbean and we've found areas that were hotspots of biodiversity, but this exceeds all of them. ... It's an enormous system."
The 850 sq. mile atoll is larger than the five islands of the Netherlands Antilles put together, but it's been little studied by scientists.
The bank is frequented by about 40 Saba fisherman, whose annual catch is about $1 million — a little less than 10 percent of the island's economy.
The fishermen, concerned about supertanker traffic that passes over Saba Bank on its way to an oil terminal on the nearby Dutch island of St. Eustatius, asked the government what it could do to protect the atoll, said Paul C. Hoetjes, a senior policy adviser in the Netherlands Antilles environmental department.
The Dutch Antilles government will use the data to apply to the International Maritime Organization to create a protected space for the atoll, Hoetjes said.
Smith said it will be about a year before they know if they have new species. That process typically includes comparing the specimen to known fish, DNA sequencing, reviewing tissues samples and X-rays, counting the number of scales on the side of the body, counting the number of vertebrae on the skeleton and the number of rays on the fins.
Among other criteria set up by international commissions regulating animal and plant names, the scientists' findings have to be published — preferably, but not necessarily, in a peer-reviewed scientific journal — before being officially classified as new species.
C. Lavett Smith, who has studied tropical marine fishes for about 50 years and was not involved in the research, said the discoveries weren't unusual.
"There's no question that it is a very rich area," said Smith, author of the "National Audubon Society Field Guide to Tropical Marine Fishes." "It is not at all surprising that they would find new species of gobies. ... Those are being discovered all the time."
Nonetheless, the findings show there's still much to uncover in the Caribbean Sea.
"Any time we find new species it tells us that we've only sort of begun to characterize our biodiversity," said Don R. Levitan, a Florida State University professor of biological science.
The Caribbean wasn't a "novel place" for researchers, he said, "so the fact that they're finding new species there tells us we still have a lot to learn."