Rapid Assessment of Octocoral Diversity and Habitat on Saba Bank, Netherlands Antilles

Saba Bank is a large submerged platform (~2200 km2), average depth 30 m, located 4 km southwest of Saba Island in Netherlands Antilles, Caribbean Sea. Ships traveling to and from oil terminals on nearby St. Eustatius routinely anchor on the Bank, damaging benthic megafauna. Gorgonian octocorals are vulnerable to anchor damage, and they are common and conspicuous in shallow water (15–50 m) around the banks. This prompted a rapid assessment of octocoral habitat and diversity. The primary objectives were to estimate total species richness and to characterize habitats vis a vis gorgonians. Landsat imagery and multibeam bathymetry were employed to identify random sites for quantitative transects. A Seabotix LBV200L remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and SCUBA were used to collect and survey to 130 m. A total of 14 scuba dives and 3 ROV dives were completed in 10 days. During that time, 48 octocoral species were collected, including two likely undescribed species in the genera Pterogorgia and Lytreia. Gorgonian richness was exceptional, but not all species were collected, because the species accumulation curve remained steeply inclined after all surveys. Two shallow-water gorgonian habitat types were identified using multidimensional scaling and hierarchical cluster analyses: 1) a high diversity, high density fore-reef environment characterized by Eunicea spp., Gorgonia spp., and Pseudopterogorgia spp. and 2) a low diversity, low density plateau environment characterized by Pseudopterogorgia acerosa, Pterogorgia guadalupensis, and Gorgonia mariae. The analyses support hypotheses of broad (~15 km) habitat homogeneity (ANOSIM, P>0.05), but a significant difference between fore-reef and plateau environments (ANOSIM, P<0.05). However, there was some indication of habitat heterogeneity along the 15 km study section of the 50 km platform edge along the southeast rim. Our results highlight the complexity and biodiversity of the Saba Bank, and emphasize the need for more scientific exploration. 

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