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Republic of the Marshall Islands Biodiversity Clearing House Mechanism
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Marine biodiversity of the Marshalls

With over 99.99% of what makes up the current Marshall Islands being ocean and lagoon, in some ways it would be more accurate to call the region the Marshalls "Seas" rather than "Islands." While this may not be practical, the sea undeniably is the most significant aspect of biodiversity in the Marshall Islands.

The sea is home to the largest number of Marshalls' species, with over 90% of animals and a large percentage of the plants in the country classified as marine. Moreover, the sea is the primary source of biological resources for people of this country, prehistorically, historically and in modem times.

During the brief atoll workshops, the participants were easily able to list the names of hundreds of fishes and other marine animals which are of benefit to people. Since these were Marshallese names, undoubtedly the number included many more actual species. Fishing methods were also discussed and about 39 types were named. That's an impressive enough number, yet there are actually over 85 known methods of fishing throughout the country, most of which are still in use. With over 1,000 species of fishes in 157 families, this immense knowledge of fishing and fishes is understandable.

Yet, many families of fishes with the largest numbers of species are not the best known because they are not preferred for eating. There are more species within the goby family - 87 - than any other fish family, but these are small and considered insignificant. Hence most don't even have well-known Marshallese names (aside from the all-encompassing term "jibale"),

The same can be said regarding damselfishes, of which over 50 species are found in the Marshalls. Eels are also big, with over 100 species in the related families; and there are over 30 butterflyfishes, Yet even though some of these are currently used as food, they are considered of lesser quality, and thus still known by only a general name. However, certain families with large numbers - the wrasses with 85 species, groupers 52 species, 36 surgeonfishes, 35 cardinalfishes and 26 parrotfishes - there are often distinctive names designating each species. In fact some fishes that have extreme color variations, as in parrotfishes, one species may even have several Marshallese names.

Within these 1,000 plus species of fishes, 864 are inshore species (found down to a depth of 200 meters or about 700 feet), 121 deepwater, 67 open ocean (undoubtedly there are many more), and actually 7 freshwater/brackish water. Almost all are native, with only 6 species that appear to be introduced, mainly recently and into freshwater. There are 7 species and subspecies endemic to the Marshall Islands and another 17 to the Marshalls and other Pacific Islands. There are also endemic mantis shrimps, pycnogonid, bryozoa, lamp snail, crinoids, and other species from families, orders and phyla with which many people are not familiar.

The endemic three-banded anemonefish (Amphiprion tricinctus) is not traditionally considered to be all that important since it is not a food fish. However, it has in recent years proved to be a valuable biological resource because it is quite popular in the aquarium industry. No endemic marine species or subspecies been given any conservation consideration, although it is The endemic three-banded anemonefish, a not unlikely that if researched, some may qualify.

All species and subspecies that are protected under Republic of the Marshall Islands' law, are marine, aside from the Micronesian pigeon. Sponges, trochus, and the black-lipped pearl oyster are protected for commercial reasons. The 5 species of marine turtles and 10 species of whales and dolphins known - or even suspected - to be in the Marshalls' waters, even on rare instances, have been afforded some protection.

From a worldwide point of view, it is still the Marshalls' marine biodiversity that contains the species of concern. Of the 43 species and subspecies that are considered by various agencies to be worthy of conservation considerations, again, almost all are marine. The only exceptions are 3 land snails and a few birds - but even at that, half of the birds listed are open ocean wanderers.


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