Widespread shallow coral reef loss has led to calls for more holistic approaches to coral reef management, requiring inclusion of ecosystems interacting with shallow coral reefs in management plans. Yet, almost all current reef management is biased towards shallow reefs, and overlooks that coral reefs extend beyond shallow waters to mesophotic coral ecosystems (MCEs; 30–150 m). We present the first detailed quantitative characterization of MCEs off Cozumel, Mexico, on the northern Mesoamerican Reef in the Mexican Caribbean, and provide insights into their general state. We documented MCE biodiversity, and assessed whether MCEs adjacent to a major town and port, where coastal development has caused shallow reef damage, have similar benthic and fish communities to MCEs within a National Park. Our results show that overall MCE communities are similar regardless of protection, though some taxa-specific differences exist in benthic communities between sites within the MPA and areas outside. Regardless of protection and location, and in contrast to shallow reefs, all observed Cozumel MCEs were continuous reefs with the main structural habitat complexity provided by calcareous macroalgae, sponges, gorgonians and black corals. Hard corals were present on MCEs, although at low abundance. We found that 42.5% of fish species recorded on Cozumel could be found on both shallow reefs and MCEs, including 39.6% of commercially valuable fish species. These results suggest that MCEs could play an important role in supporting fish populations. However, regardless of protection and depth, we found few large-body fishes (greater than 500 mm), which were nearly absent at all studied sites. Cozumel MCEs contain diverse benthic and fish assemblages, including commercially valuable fisheries species and ecosystem engineers, such as black corals. Because of their inherent biodiversity and identified threats, MCEs should be incorporated into shallow-reef-focused Cozumel National Park management plan.
Mexico - Caribbean
SCUBA (open-circuit or unspecified)