The Caribbean is one of the four major regions from which marine aquarium species are collected for the aquarium hobby.
Unlike the freshwater hobby, marine aquarists are largely dependent upon wild-caught animals (although captive breeding programs for saltwater animals are gaining popularity).
Because most of the animals housed in a marine aquarist’s tank will have come from one of the four major collection areas (the Indo-Pacific, the Eastern Pacific, the Western Atlantic and West Africa), it is very useful for the aquarist to understand something about each. Here we’ll deal with the Caribbean.
The Western Atlantic Zoogeographical Area
What many people refer to as the Caribbean collection area is actually a much larger area than the commonly accepted political boundaries of the Caribbean countries. In fact, the Caribbean proper is just a subset of the much larger Western Atlantic zoogeographical area.
Zoogeography is the study of biodiversity both spatially and temporally, and zoogeographical regions are those regions that are home to a specific diversity of species in a given timeframe.
The Western Atlantic is a zoogeographical region bounded on the west by the Americas, to the north by the much colder Northern Atlantic north of Bermuda, on the east by the deep water of the Atlantic, and, finally, on the south by the colder water of the Southern Atlantic south of Ascension Island.
A Fairly Isolated Region
It is highly unusual for species indigenous to the Western Atlantic zoogeographical area to migrate to another zoogeographical area. For example, few species of fishes make the journey across the Atlantic from the Western Atlantic zoogeographical region to the West Africa zoogeographical region. Likewise, while more closely related, it is unusual for an Eastern Pacific species to establish itself in the Western Atlantic.
With increasing globalization, more intermixing of species from difficult zoogeographical regions have occurred, but the Western Atlantic has remained fairly isolated. For example, fishes have moved from the Indo-Pacific to the Mediterranean by way of the Suez Canal (a sea level canal), but the same has not occurred by way of the Panama Canal due to the Panama Canal’s lock system and freshwater lake at its center.
Even with the effective zoogeographical boundaries of the Americas to the west and the deep ocean to the east, some non-indigenous species have established themselves in the Western Atlantic (e.g. Zebra Mussel and the lionfish).
For many aquarists, the Western Atlantic is one of the most interesting zoogeographical regions from which tropical saltwater aquarium animals are collected. Only about two-thirds the number of fish and invertebrate families from the Indo-Pacific are found in the Western Atlantic, but the regional diversity more than makes up for less biodiversity.
Except for coral reefs in Southern Japan, nowhere else on Earth do coral reef-associated species’ ranges extend so far north. Likewise, Ascension Island to the south (home to the resplendent angelfish, Centropyge resplendens) is absolutely nothing like the Caribbean’s sandy, mangrove-fringed shorelines.
The Caribbean Sea is Home to Many Popular Aquarium Species
Despite the Western Atlantic’s geographical diversity, the region roughly defined by the Caribbean Sea is the epicenter of the Western Atlantic from the aquarist’s perspective. Popular tropical species of marine aquarium fishes such as the Black Cap Basslet (Gramma melacara), the Pearly Jawfish (Opistognathus aurifrons), and the Atlantic Blue Tang (Acanthurus coeruleus) all call the Caribbean Sea home.
Reefs in Trouble and the Role of Aquarists in Reef Conservation
Nearly 30 percent of the world’s coral reefs are found in the Caribbean Sea, but, unfortunately, many of these reefs are in trouble. Sea surface temperature change, coastal development, disease, and overfishing are all threatening this remarkable area. The future health of the Caribbean Sea will depend on education and conservation.
Marine aquarists can play a critical role in this regard. Replicating these remarkable ecosystems in their home aquaria and caring for species that have been collected in a sustainable manner is one of the best ways to heighten awareness about Caribbean reefs and the species which inhabit them.