In the Caribbean Sea Ecosystem Assessment report, Professor John Agard and Angela Cropper, describes the Caribbean Sea as a distinct ecological region – the Caribbean Large Marine Ecosystem. The Sea was described in this way due to the interconnectivity of its characteristic habitats like mangroves, seagrass communities, and coral reefs. 116 million people live within 100km of the Caribbean Sea, which is bordered by 39 countries and territories.
What makes the Caribbean Sea unique?
The Caribbean Sea is home to 7 percent of the world’s coral reefs, including the largest coral system in the Northern Hemisphere – the Meso-American Reef – which rests in the world’s second largest Sea. Additionally, it also contains the most deep-water scleractinian corals, or stony corals, in the western hemisphere. The unique environment provided by it makes the Caribbean Sea a biological hotspot as it has the highest concentration of marine species in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Caribbean Marine Climate Change Report Card produced by the Commonwealth Marine Economies Programme in 2017 says that “Caribbean people’s lives and cultures are centered around the sea; we depend more on our coastal and marine environment than do any other regions on Earth.”
A Large Marine Ecosystem
The Caribbean is the region in the world that is most dependent upon income from tourism. Its allure is its Sea, its beauty draws tourists from all over the world.
Seagrass beds are a source of food for many reef organisms such as green turtles, parrot fishes, and queen conches. They also provide a nursery for many juvenile commercial species of fish, crustaceans, and molluscs. The seagrass beds do not only provide the cultural services which fuel our tourism industry, they also provide regulatory services such climate and nutrient regulation. As an important marine staple, seagrass beds absorb a lot of dissolved carbon dioxide for the process of photosynthesis, after which, half of this organic matter is exported as detritus which provides food to offshore ecosystems.
The Mangroves, found along the coastlines of almost all countries and territories surrounding the Sea offer the regulatory service of coastal protection and waste regulation. The Mangrove trees themselves provide these services by decreasing the forces of incoming wind, waves and water currents, and by trapping the sediment of water leaving the Mangrove and entering the ocean. The waste regulation service buffers the effects of inland waste on coral reefs and seagrass beds, by reducing the amount of sedimentation, which would affect the rate of photosynthesis. Mangroves, like seagrass beds, provide food for a variety of commercial species, and a habitat for juveniles.
The Coral reefs – the ocean’s rainforests and tourists’ main attraction – benefit tremendously form the services provided by the Mangroves and Seagrass communities. It is through the interactions of all three characteristic ecosystems that the coral reefs can support the colourful and diverse life, a major source of income for the region. However, the Caribbean Sea is also essential in supporting another important sector – fishing – on which more than 1.5 million people rely.
Due to its geographic makeup, the sea is also a prime spot for oil and natural gas. While much of the region does not depend upon this sector, it is the main sector of one of the most prosperous countries – Trinidad and Tobago – whose economy is almost entirely based on it.
A Sea under siege
Caribbean people’s lives depend upon the Caribbean Sea, but it is in jeopardy.
Between the Sargassum seaweed outbreaks that chocked beaches in 2015, the lionfish invasion and decimation of the reefs, and overfishing to the point where some fish stocks have been depleted more than 90%, our Sea is under siege.
According to the World Wildlife Fund’s MesoAmerican Reef report, although our reefs have survived the seasonal onslaught of hurricanes, they may not be as well prepared to withstand the impact of people.
Some threats identified were coastal development and its associated problems such as pollution, unregulated tourism growth, deforestation (including the removal of Mangroves) for agriculture and associated issues such as soil erosion and herbicide and fertiliser pollution, unsustainable fishing practices, oil spills, and of course, climate change.
Climate change poses many threats, such as increased intensity and frequency of hurricanes which will put pressure on the structural integrity of reefs and mangroves, and increased sea temperatures which will put physiological stress on marine animals in the that operate within a very narrow temperature range.
It will also increase the occurrence of coral bleaching and disease. This spells disaster for species, and Caribbean people, as increased sea temperatures have been linked to the increased occurrence of micro-algal toxins up food chains, which cause ciguatera fish poisoning in humans.
The situation is dire – seagrass beds are constantly removed to “beautify” bathing beaches, Mangroves have decreased by 1% annually since 1980, and live coral cover has declined by as much as 80% in the last 20 years.
Can Teamwork make the dream work?
Perhaps though, the greatest threat we pose to our Sea is our inability to work together to monitor, manage, and protect it. There is a lack of coordinated data collection and sharing, and inability to form a unified authority to protect our resources. Often, competition gets in the way of cooperation.
According to Ambassador Alfonso Múnera, Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States, in 2015 speaking about an upcoming initiative known as the Caribbean Sea Commission, it is our history of fragmentation that makes the political will to cooperation difficult to foster.
Ambassador Múnera emphasised, “we need to make it clear for every Caribbean country that the Caribbean Sea is our most important collective asset and natural heritage. We need to protect it. Not just because we are a romantic people who want to protect it, but because of pragmatic, fundamental reasons—we get food from the Caribbean Sea, our tourism industry is intimately related to the Caribbean Sea; even our survival as a people depends on the sustainability of the Caribbean Sea.”
Two years later, it seems that Caribbean leaders have yet to master the art of unity. Speeches were given, and commitments made at the 2017 United Nations Ocean Conference give testament to the idea of solitary when it comes to the Caribbean Sea.
It is unfortunate that our history has driven us apart, and causes us to fight over that which should unite us. Hopefully, we can leave history in the past, and work together to save our Sea as our lives depend on it.