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updated 9/19/2006 11:58:41 AM ET 2006-09-19T15:58:41

Dozens of fish, shrimp and coral species, including two new types of a shark that walks on its fins, have been discovered in waters off New Guinea in the South Pacific, conservationists announced Monday.

The researchers described the area as “Earth's richest seascape” and “the most biodiverse marine area on the planet.” But they also warned that it faces threats such as fishing with dynamite and cyanide, commercial fishing and degraded water quality from mining and logging in Papua province, a section of New Guinea governed by Indonesia.

“These Papuan reefs are literally ‘species factories’ that require special attention to protect them from unsustainable fisheries and other threats so they can continue to benefit their local owners and the global community,” expedition leader Mark Erdmann, a researcher with Conservation International, said in a statement.

“Six of our survey sites, which are areas the size of two football fields, had over 250 species of reef-building coral each — that’s more than four times the number of coral species of the entire Caribbean Sea,” he added.

The entire area covers 45 million acres off a peninsula in northwest New Guinea. Researchers have counted 1,200 species of fish there and 600 species of reef-building coral — the latter equal to 75 percent of the world’s known total.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, covering an area 10 times bigger, has more types of fish — 1,464 species — but just 405 species of coral. And the bigger Caribbean Sea has fewer than 1,000 species of fish and just 58 types of coral.

During two surveys earlier this year, Conservation International and Indonesian experts found at least 36 new species of fish, coral and mantis shrimp in the waters, which are peppered with 2,500 islands and submerged reefs. The area also includes the largest Pacific leatherback turtle nesting area in the world, and is visited by whales, orcas and several dolphin species.

Two of the new species are members of the epaulette shark family, which distinguishes itself by sometimes using its fins to scamper away. Their name comes from the fact that they have two large round spots near their heads that look like epaulettes, the shoulder ornaments on military uniforms.

Dynamite, cyanide threats
The researchers, who plan additional surveys next year, said it's already clear that Indonesia should extend protections around the region, only one-tenth of which now has national park status.

Video: Land shark? Erdmann told MSNBC.com that as resource-rich as the region is, it faces immediate threats such as the use of dynamite and cyanide by locals to stun and then capture live fish for export.

"At two sites we heard ear-shattering fish bombing blasts in the near vicinity," he said, "and our socio-economic team from the State University of Papua documented a number of villages where cyanide fishers were actively targeting grouper for capture with cyanide before exporting to China live.

"We also saw past evidence of illegal logging, though I'm happy to say that the Indonesian government's crackdown on illegal logging over the past five years seems to have greatly reduced this activity in Papua and we did not see any active logging. We are, of course, concerned about stated plans for both mining and logging in steep coastal areas that would be done legally.”

Commercial fishing in area
Erdmann said a potentially greater problem could be the introduction of commercial fishing in the area as Indonesia transfers fishing pressure from its overfished western seas eastwards towards Papua.

"During our survey our socio-economic team did interview one Chinese-owned fish processing plant that is set up in the southeast of the Kaimana coastline," he said. "They are currently fishing just offshore for shrimp using trawls, but confided they had plans to bring approximately 100 additional vessels on line over the next two years targeting fish stocks just offshore. Needless to say, this is only one company, and this level of investment would clearly be unsustainable and likely collapse the fishery within three to five years at most."


Conservation International — which has been working with Indonesia as well as The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund — said it was optimistic that Indonesia would see the value of protecting the region.

"We've been very pleased with the positive response of the Indonesian government to our survey results, and with indications ... of their interest in expanding a network of marine protected areas to both protect the unparalleled marine biodiversity and also ensure sustainable management of fisheries in order that local communities maintain their food security."

Papua's amazing biodiversity was brought to the public's attention last February, when Conservation International reported that an expedition to the Foja Mountains , some 200 miles inland, had revealed a "lost world" of wildlife.

Additional background, images and video about the marine expeditions are online at www.conservation.org.

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