Washington, D.C. - A sweeping study of the vast Abrolhos Bank off northeast Brazil revealed a richness of unique marine life that might be greater than the Caribbean, showing the need to protect rare biodiversity that supports local communities.
Issued by Conservation International, the report was based on biodiversity assessments of 45 sites in the Abrolhos Bank region – an area larger than Denmark off the southern coast of Bahia state – conducted in February 2000.
The team of 19 scientists registered nearly 1,300 species, including 17 mollusks and one fish species new to science. Other findings included 15 algae, two coral, 86 polychaete, 23 crustacean and nearly 100 fish species registered for the first time in the Abrolhos Bank.
Overall, the study found that the levels of endemism – meaning species found nowhere else – were up to four times greater than in the Caribbean. Species endemic to Abrolhos waters, such as the brain coral (Mussismilia braziliensis), could become extinct if threats from improperly regulated fishing and habitat degradation continue.
“The study showed that Brazilian coral reefs in general, and those in the Abrolhos Bank in particular, are key ecosystems for the biodiversity conservation in the southwest Atlantic Ocean”, said Zelinda Leão of the Coastal Studies Laboratory of the Federal University of Bahia, “These reefs concentrate high endemism levels in smaller areas, and this small portion of the ocean is under serious and immediate threat.”
Led by Conservation International (CI-Brazil), the study also involved specialists from Brazilian universities, non-government organizations and the Brazilian Government. It called for improving existing partnerships among involved stakeholders including local communities to better integrate marine and coastal resource management, along with greater conservation efforts and further study of the region.
In particular, the scientists said the programs must integrate mutually dependant ecosystems, such as reefs, mangroves, and forests. The study called for strengthening the network of marine protected areas of the Abrolhos Bank by creating new protected areas and effectively managing existing ones.
The Brazilian government recently created an official buffer zone around the Abrolhos National Marine Park to protect the biologically richest coral reefs in the South Atlantic. Under Brazilian law, buffer zones around protected areas offer strong protection, with special permits from environmental authorities required for any economic use.
“The buffer zone will guarantee the biodiversity integrity in the park and ensure that local communities can continue carrying out their means of livelihood through traditional fishing and eco-tourism activities,” said Guilherme Dutra, director of CI-Brazil’s marine program.
The Abrolhos region, located off the coastal town of Caravelas in the far south of Bahia state of northeast Brazil, is home to mangrove forests and restinga (a uniquely Brazilian ecosystem of sparsely vegetated sand ridges) and a complex of small islands, coral and algal reefs. Its natural resources directly support more than 100,000 people.
Since 1996, CI-Brazil has conducted biological monitoring at Abrolhos National Marine Park, including assessments of the effects of oil and gas exploration and possible oil spills that helped motivate the effort by Brazil’s Institute of Environment and Natural Resources (IBAMA) to get the buffer zone declared.
Photos available upon request