29 May 2019 Editorial Climate change

The Caribbean – Keeping it Real


When people all over the world think of the Caribbean, turquoise seas, clean beaches, coral reefs teeming with a variety of fish, turtles and other sea creatures, balmy breezes …come to mind.

This “Paradise” is home to us; it is what we depend upon for sustenance and, often, to make a living. It is the origin of much of the pride we feel when we say we are from the Caribbean.


Increasingly however, the reality experienced may not live up to expectations – we may arrive at the seashore to find it covered with sargassum; the water may be cloudy and brown and the horizon may be covered in trash; the coral reefs may look faded and tired and you may see barely enough fish to count on one hand.  The turtles you see in the brochures are nowhere in sight, and that refreshing sea breeze…well… maybe not so fresh…

For visitors, the experience of “Paradise” is becoming less and less predictable.  Whether they see it as getting value for money, or simply the relaxing getaway they needed, when it’s over, they fly away, and based on their experiences, may never return.

For locals, it’s a different matter – can they afford to buy increasingly more expensive fish and sea food and will they get sick after eating it? Do their children remain healthy after a swim in the sea? Do their homes flood every time there’s a storm? Will the visitors, upon whom they depend to make a living, return?


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Floating Sargassum mats


More Reality …and a Wake-Up Call

More than 100 million people in the Wider Caribbean Region (WCR) live on, or near, the coast in a complex ecosystem which has the highest number of marine species in the Atlantic Ocean. Almost 10 per cent of the world’s coral reefs are found in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. About 45 per cent of the fish species and 25 per cent of the coral species are found nowhere else in the world. With an area of 10,429 square kilometres of mangrove forest, the adjacent North Brazil Shelf has the highest mangrove coverage of any large marine ecosystem.

Shallow-water coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, lagoons, estuaries and beaches as well as coral banks and rocky outcrops in deep waters together make up the coral reef sub-ecosystem, the richest in biodiversity in the wider Caribbean Region. It supports three of the region’s major fisheries - reef fish, spiny lobster and conch - and is the foundation of the region’s tourism industry. Coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds also play an important part in coastal and shoreline protection under normal sea conditions as well as during hurricanes and tropical storms.

A 2016 study by the World Bank put the economic value of the Caribbean Sea alone to the region — including all its services and support to fishing, transport, trade, tourism, mining, waste disposal, energy, carbon sequestration and drug development — at US$407 billion per year.  

Yet, this precious ecosystem is at the heart of competing economic and social demands as well as natural stresses and threats. Pollution from activities on land as well as at sea degrades and destroys it and our coastal and marine biodiversity is declining.  Many once-abundant species are now threatened or endangered.  Hurricanes are becoming more frequent and more severe, resulting in great destruction, loss of lives and successively leaving the coastline and local communities more and more vulnerable.

Increasingly, whether you live in the Caribbean or are a visitor, your chances of experiencing “Paradise” are getting slimmer every day.

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Ecosystem services via recreation/beaches

A Strategy to Keep it Real

Since 1981, the United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment)-Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP), has worked towards better management and use of the Region’s coastal and marine resources.  Following the establishment, in 1983, of the Cartagena Convention, the only legally binding agreement for the protection of the Caribbean Sea, it has relentlessly worked to gain acceptance of, and agreement upon, three protocols or agreements to combat oil spills (the Oil Spills Protocol), coastal and marine biodiversity (the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife Protocol - SPAW) and pollution (the Land Based Sources of Marine Pollution Protocol – LBS), among its 28 member states and 14 territories.

Based on a Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis of the WCR conducted between 2007 and 2011 by the UNDP/GEF CLME Project (2009-2014), the coral reef sub-ecosystem was prioritized for action as part of a regional strategy to address transboundary problems that compromise the ability of the Caribbean Sea and the region’s living marine resources to support social and ecological well-being and resilience.

In the last two years, SPAW in collaboration with the five-year Caribbean and North Brazil Shelf Large Marine Ecosystems (CLME+) Project (2015-2020) has been developing in consultation with several stakeholders the following:

  • The Report on the State of Marine Habitats in the Wider Caribbean (SoMH), which provides the basis for action; and,

  • The Regional Strategy and Action Plan for the Valuation, Protection and/or Restoration of Key Marine Habitats in the Wider Caribbean 2021 -2030 (RSAP), which sets out a series of measures to be taken to address priority issues in support of the people, economies and ecology of the region, targeting coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds in particular. 

Using the integrated approach, participating governments and stakeholders from academia, civil society, and the private sector, and regional and global agencies, are working together to enhance management and conservation of the coral reef sub-ecosystem in support of sustainable development.

As Regional Governments prepare to meet at the Tenth Conference of the Parties which takes place in Roatan, Honduras on 3rd June 2019, SPAW Programme Officer, Ileana Lopez, stresses that the “State of Marine Habitats Report for the Wider Caribbean” and “Regional Strategy and Action Plan under development will help Contracting Parties implement obligations under the Cartagena Convention, its Protocols and related Global biodiversity agreements.

UN Environment-CEP, as Secretariat of the SPAW Protocol, in efforts to improve marine biodiversity management, has been working to revamp the Caribbean Marine Protected Areas Managers Network and to establish a regional wildlife enforcement network.   Assisting the region and its countries in co-executing the Strategic Action Plan is another important step in this direction.  CEP is driving the process, building the alliances needed to ensure the integrity of Caribbean coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves – it is working to ‘keep it real’.