Caribbean Fears Loss of “Keystone Species” to Climate Change

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Desmond Brown (reporting from Barbuda) writes about the bleak situation facing Caribbean biodiversity as scientists warn against loss of keystone species in the marine ecosystem due to climate change.

A marine biologist has cautioned that the mass deaths of starfish along the United States west coast in recent months could also occur in the Caribbean region because of climate change, threatening the vital fishing sector. Since June 2013, scientists began noticing that starfish, which they say function as keystone species in the marine ecosystem, have been mysteriously dying by the millions. “The cause of the starfish die-off which is taking place in the Pacific Ocean is not known at this time but it could turn out to be from a number of factors including climate change,” John Mussington told IPS.

“If it turns out that climate change factors such as ocean warming are indeed implicated in the starfish die-off, then there is the possibility that the same thing could happen in the Atlantic and affect Caribbean species.” [. . .]

Starfish play a key role in marine ecosystems. They eat mussels, barnacles, snails, mollusks and other smaller sea life so their health is considered a measure of marine life on the whole in a given area. Starfish are in turn eaten by shorebirds, gulls, and sometimes sea otters.

[. . .] He told IPS that in 1983 there was a Caribbean-wide die-off of the black sea urchin, spreading from as far north as The Bahamas right down the chain of islands to the south.

“The long-spined sea urchin was a keystone species in the Caribbean marine ecosystem, similar to the affected starfish in the Pacific-California ecosystem. The designation as ‘keystone’ is due to the fact that if there is anything affecting their large populations, then this can be interpreted as a reliable indication of problems in the entire ecosystem that will likely affect other species,” Mussington said.

“Something went very wrong with our Caribbean marine ecosystem in 1983 and the black sea urchin was wiped out – the species is considered today to be functionally extinct. With the decline of this keystone species, the Caribbean has seen significant decline in its coral reefs and the marine communities they support, including economically important commercial species.”

[. . .] Habitat degradation, specifically of coral reefs, has been cited by numerous studies as the primary cause of ongoing fish declines of Caribbean fish populations. Caribbean coral reefs have experienced drastic losses in the past several decades. Fish use the structure of corals for shelter and they also contribute to coastal protection.

[. . .] It has been estimated that fisheries associated with coral reef in the Caribbean region are responsible for generating net annual revenues, which have been valued at or above approximately 837 million Eastern Caribbean dollars, or about 310 million U.S. dollars. Continued degradation of the region’s few remaining coral reefs would diminish these net annual revenues by an estimated 95-140 million U.S. dollars annually by 2015. The subsequent decrease in dive tourism could also profoundly affect annual net tourism revenues

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