Twelve new coral and fish species discovered off Madagascar

May 13, 2002

WASHINGTON, D.C. - (May 13, 2002) At least twelve coral and fish species new to science have been discovered off the northwestern coast of Madagascar in a just-completed marine survey led by scientists from Conservation International's Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS). The researchers found diverse marine life and vibrant reef habitats in the underwater environment of this previously unexplored sector of the northern Indian Ocean.

At least three new fish species belonging to the damselfish family Pomacentridae, a large family containing about 350 species, were discovered. Given previous fish work on the island and the generally conspicuous nature of these reef dwellers, the discovery of three new species in this family was extremely unusual.

At least nine new coral species were recorded as well, one of which is most frequently blood red, although it can occur in a wide range of other colors. It appears in many environments, especially under overhangs and on rock faces.

"Madagascar gets a lot of attention for its biodiversity on land, but its marine habitats are equally precious and threatened," said Dr. Sheila McKenna, Conservation International's Marine Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) Director. "Corals, with their bright colors and unusual shapes and textures, can be as exciting to study as lemurs, and their well-being requires as much attention."

The number of described corals known to exist in Madagascar was nearly doubled during CABS's 20-day expedition, approaching the total of 340 species previously recorded for the entire western Indian Ocean and representing more than one-third of the world's total known species of hard corals.

Fringing one-sixth of the world's coastlines and supporting hundreds of thousands of animal and plant species, coral reefs are the most biologically diverse of shallow water marine ecosystems. Coral reefs consist of plants and animals, primarily corals that surround their small tentacles in a hard skeleton that forms much of the reef structure. They support the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people worldwide by providing seafood, sources for medicinal products and revenue through tourism. They also form a natural barrier between coastal communities and the open ocean, lessening beach erosion.

Coral reefs are being degraded worldwide by human activities and climate change. These vital marine habitats are often fished intensively; in regions of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, fishing with dynamite and poisons has devastated reef habitats.

The RAP survey gathered both biological and socio-economic data on the selected coral reef area in order to recommend conservation priorities and to help local natural resource managers. RAP surveys are intended as short-term field assessments by a team of experts recruited from the international scientific community. The results of the survey will help Malagasy policy makers in future designation of marine protected areas.

Madagascar's coral reefs can best be sustainably protected and managed with participation from local community groups. During its expedition, the RAP team visited 15 villages and established contact with the heads of each village and with select fishermen.

Sixty to seventy-five percent of the men living in villages within the survey area engage in fishing as their livelihood, targeting at least 55 reef fish species in 18 families. These local fishermen are concerned about the apparent decline of fish in both physical size and abundance of stock. They also worried about the presence of migrant fishermen who conduct approximately 80 percent of the fishing in the area without regard for the environment or local customs. Migrant fishermen do not return their profits to the local economy. Financial reinvestment is acutely necessary for the improvement of living standards, since residents suffer from poor health standards and few educational opportunities.

The ten-member RAP team consisted of five Malagasy scientists, including Dr. Jean Maharavo of the National Center of Environmental Research (CNRE), two representatives from Conservation International, a corals expert from France and two scientists from Australia; one of these, Dr. J.E.N. Veron, a corals expert with the Australian Institute of Marine Science, is credited with having described over one-third of the known corals on Earth.

Madagascar and neighboring island groups (including the Mascarenes, Comoros and Seychelles) in the Western Indian Ocean represent one of the 25 terrestrial biodiversity hotspots, areas identified as Earth's richest but most threatened centers of plant and animal life.
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The Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, (CABS) based at Conservation International, strengthens the ability of CI and other institutions to accurately identify and quickly respond to emerging threats to Earth's biological diversity. CABS brings together leading experts in science and technology to collect and interpret data about biodiversity, to develop strategic plans for conservation and to forge key partnerships in all sectors toward conservation goals. Read more about CABS at www.biodiversityscience.org.

CI's Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) was created in 1990 to rapidly provide biological information needed to catalyze conservation action and improve biodiversity protection. Small RAP teams of expert international and host-country tropical field biologists conduct rapid first-cut assessments of the biological value of selected areas over a short time period (three to four weeks).

IMAGES AND INTERVIEWS AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST

Conservation International

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