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SeaFlower Biosphere Reserve: New Findings and Trends in the Largest Caribbean Marine Protected Area

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The SeaFlower Biosphere Reserve (San Andres, Old Providence and Santa Catalina archipelago, Colombia) protects one of the most extensive and productive coral reef systems in the Western Hemisphere. The third largest true barrier reef in the world with a length of 32 km and an area of 255 km2, is ...

The SeaFlower Biosphere Reserve (San Andres, Old Providence and Santa Catalina archipelago, Colombia) protects one of the most extensive and productive coral reef systems in the Western Hemisphere. The third largest true barrier reef in the world with a length of 32 km and an area of 255 km2, is found off Old Providence Island. The archipelago, volcanic in origin, is comprised by cays and atolls. These atolls are among the very few found in the Atlantic Ocean. The area of some of its coral banks, such as Quitasueño, can exceed 1000 km2. The entire archipelago was legally declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2000, when a Regional System of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) was established. The reserve includes some of the highest coral cover and octocoral densities of the Caribbean Sea. The SeaFlower Biosphere reserve, the largest MPA in the Caribbean, is considered by the United Nations Environment Program (PNUD) as an exemplary case study of ecosystem-based management. Approximately 30% of the human populations living in the archipelago are Afro-Caribbean Raizals, a creole-speaking community with profound knowledge of the region and the local fisheries. The Old Providence island MPA, designed with substantial stakeholder input, is one of the most effective in the Caribbean basin. Paradoxically, San Andres island, the archipelago’s main island which is located on a tilted atoll, is among the most populated Caribbean islands with >70000 inhabitants. The rapid population growth on this island and the high degree of human dependency on fisheries and diving tourism pose increasing socioecological challenges.

The Caribbean region has shown an unparalleled rate of coral reef decline over the last several decades, and dozens of species in this region are endangered by extinction. The potential of the SeaFlower Biosphere Reserve reserve for effective conservation is exceptional given its isolation and strategic location. Yet, few studies have documented the status and dynamics of marine ecosystems in the reserve, and currently no valuation of the ecosystem services exists for this area. Without direct continental influence, this archipelago provides an ideal natural setting to study the effects of global anthropogenic impacts and climate change on coral reefs. Recently, there has been a growing interest in exploring and systematically surveying the biodiversity in this area, including some of the most remote cays and atolls, and the deeper mesophotic coral ecosystems. This research topic is intended to consolidate and promote the understanding of this benchmark example of marine conservation as well as to bring attention to actions urgently needed to preserve its ecosystem services.


Keywords: Coral Reefs, Oceanic atolls, Caribbean, Marine Biodiversity, Biosphere reserve, MPAs


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