Many of us imagine corals living in warm, tropical waters like those in the Caribbean. But what many of us don’t know is that the Caribbean has the highest number of species of deep-water scleractinian corals in the western hemisphere. More than 75% of the Caribbean Sea region is covered by waters >500 m water depth, but our knowledge of deep-sea biodiversity in the Caribbean remains poor.
Cold-water corals and the habitats they form are well studied in areas such as the Straits of Florida, Little Bahama Bank and in the Colombian Caribbean. Coral habitats are also known in areas off the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Greater and Lesser Antilles. Recent discoveries of coral habitats in the northwest Caribbean are now available to accompany coral records from earlier historic surveys. Living Lophelia pertusa has also been reported for the first time on the Meso-American Barrier Reef System, which spans over 1000 km from Mexico to the Honduras and which may represent an important “deep-sea coral gateway” to the wider Atlantic Ocean.
Impacts of bottom-fishing on cold-water corals in this region, as with cold-water corals globally, are expected to be severe, particularly in the US Caribbean. However a progressive strategy to protect Caribbean resources was adopted by the nation of Belize, which in December 2010, banned bottom trawling in its EEZ. Impacts of climate change and oil exploration/extraction are not known. But what is clear is that cold-water corals in this region provide a vast array of ecosystem services with tremendous ecological and economic value that needs to be evaluated.