Managing our most important resource: The Caribbean Sea


This article by Shereen Ali appeared in Trinidad and Tobago’s Guardian.

A World Wildlife Fund report released April this year conservatively valued world ocean assets at US$24 trillion—with an extra US$2.5 trillion a year from the goods and services we get from coastal and marine environments. Our patch of the ocean, the Caribbean Sea, has not been evaluated in this way, but there is no doubt it sustains life here in many crucial ways. We swim, surf and play in it, we harvest seafood from it, and many people earn a living directly or indirectly from it, including fisherfolk, tour operators, scuba dive businesses, restaurants and beach hotel owners.

Worldwide, seas and oceans provide food, clean air, a stable climate, transport and energy. We often take the value our own Caribbean Sea very much for granted, assuming its bounty will always be there for us. But this is simply not the case.

Although the greater Caribbean region’s coral reefs, mangrove forests and seagrass meadows provide important feeding and breeding grounds for more than 1,300 species of fish, for marine mammals and for six sea turtle species, these areas are under threat from overfishing, human pollution, warming temperatures, invasive species, and destructive, poorly planned human coastal developments. This is according to many organisations, including NAMPAM (the North American Regional Protected Areas Network), the World Wildlife Fund, and the UK-based Global Ocean Commission (GOC). As a result, in the Caribbean, many turtle species are endangered, many high value grouper and conch fisheries have collapsed and coral reefs are under stress, with some species suffering declines of more than 90 per cent, says NAMPAM.

The fact is that we are failing to manage this invaluable resource in any coordinated way—cynics might argue we’re failing to manage it at all. And we’re not unique in this: the GOC, formed in 2013, noted on its website: “No single body shoulders responsibility for ocean health, and an absence of accountability is characterised by blind exploitation of resources and a wilful lack of care”—all of which has led to a cycle of global ocean decline.

Can the cycle be reversed?

The Caribbean Sea Commission

In the Caribbean, this may just be possible—if the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) achieves an impact. The ACS is a regional body which aims to create real co-operation on selected common issues across some 25 countries in the region, from the Yucatan peninsula to the Guianas, all linked by the Caribbean Sea. And the ACS’s most recent initiative, an international research meeting on November 23-24 of the Caribbean Sea Commission, hopes to encourage a more coordinated, intelligent sea policy across all 25 member nations.

This is an ambitious task indeed. Exactly how challenging is it for so many Caribbean countries to cooperate on any single issue?

“I think that is the great challenge of Caribbean history,” said Ambassador Alfonso Múnera, Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), last Friday.

But better regional cooperation is essential, he believes, especially now, given the reality of climate change and the threats this presents. Sharing regional best practices is key to our survival in a rapidly changing environment, he said.

Ambassador Múnera is from Colombia, a country with a huge range of ecosystems and a richly diverse culture, more than 46.7 million people live there. Múnera graduated in law and political science from the University of Cartagena in 1981. He earned a doctorate in Latin American and US history in 1995 from the University of Connecticut, and has been a visiting academic at many universities. He was the Colombian ambassador in Jamaica for five years (1999-2003) and became Secretary General of the ACS in April 2012 for a four-year term.

His ACS role involves diplomatic functions across the region, helping to strengthen institutional relationships and promote ACS work.

Múnera said the recent Caribbean Sea Commission symposium attracted 26 international organisations, diplomats from 19 countries, and scientific experts from 18 countries.

“For the first time, we pulled together experts from all over the Greater Caribbean; from the islands and from the continental Caribbean… and the level of discussion was very high,” said Múnera.

The symposium was unique for the wide number of participants: Spanish, French and English-speaking experts for the first time were sharing their research in an effort to find common solutions.

Ambassador Múnera said some problems are becoming urgent, undermining the tourist industries which so many Caribbean countries depend on. Sargassum seaweed outbreaks, for instance, choked many beaches this year, while lionfish are quietly wiping out other marine life forms and disrupting delicate coral reef ecosystems throughout the entire region—these fish out-breed, out-compete and out-live local fish species, undermining food security. Meanwhile, many beaches in the region are simply being eroded away.

A key recommendation from the symposium was a simple, but fundamental one: our researchers and policymakers across the region need to cooperate, and do this better, more often, more effectively, and more quickly. The symposium recommended active regional research collaboration in more systematic, structured ways. Many individual countries are already doing excellent research; but it happens in isolated pools; the research isn’t shared, so we don’t have the big picture, which would inform coordinated sea policies. One such approach, for instance, would be to collectively manage the Caribbean Sea as a single Large Marine Ecosystem, something we do not do right now.

“No one country can deal with these topics alone, especially small countries, which don’t have the resources to deal with these kinds of threats. Just think how much money Mexico spent trying to control Sargassum seaweed on its Caribbean coasts—about US$9.1 million. And there is great uncertainty—no one can predict what will happen next year, which countries will be affected, and how badly,” said Múnera.

Munera said the really big challenge is for our experts and leaders from different countries to simply get together. He’s talking about the political will to cooperate.

“We don’t have this tradition of working together, and we have to build it. What we are now trying to build, after centuries of fragmentation, is this new experience of working together.” He admits the challenge of collaboration across so many countries in the region remains significant—but not impossible.

Regional research networks

The recent Caribbean Sea Symposium is an example of the progress which can be made, he says. Participants now want to establish consistent, centralised mechanisms to collect and disseminate research, and the ACS Secretariat plans to set up a databank for this. The Caribbean Sea Commission may become a central coordinating agency; one of its key tasks will be to present best practices and recommendations to governmental policymakers. France has come on board, volunteering to develop a project on the sustainability of the Caribbean Sea, as well as host a conference on the Caribbean Sea next year in Guadeloupe. And the ACS Secretariat, and the CSC, will be reporting to the next annual ACS Ministerial Council Meeting in Haiti in January 2016, hoping to include priority, achievable recommendations in next year’s ACS action plan, to be presented at the Heads of States ACS summit in Havana, Cuba in 2016.

The CSC, meanwhile, has not been idle. The Commission has been lobbying to get the United Nations to declare the entire Caribbean Sea as a protected area, says Múnera. But that is a long process. He says we need to first clarify terms—what the limits of “protected area” means, for instance.

“We need to start building this consensus, and culture, and network,” emphasises Múnera: “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.”

And the end goal? To have decision makers understand the implications of the best available science, and translate this to coordinated policies to better manage coastal zones and marine resources.

We, in the Caribbean, are among the most vulnerable to climate change impacts, notes Múnera. So we need to act soon. We can’t just wait to see what the big powers at the climate change talks in Paris decide, says Múnera; we need to act together, in our own region, for our own interests.

More info

​What is the Association of Caribbean States?

The Association of Caribbean States (ACS) began in 1994 to promote cooperative action among its members on selected issues. The ACS represents 280 million people centered on the Caribbean Sea, spanning islands and mainland states. It includes Spanish, French, Dutch and English-speaking citizens, from tiny islands like St Lucia to large continental South American nations with Caribbean coastlines. It is the most inclusive of many regional groupings.

The group works by consensus. It focuses on four main areas: developing regional trade, regional transport, sustainable tourism and disaster risk reduction. Its other areas of interest are culture, science and technology, and the Caribbean Sea Commission.

The ACS includes 25 Member States and seven Associate Members. The main groups of members are: CARICOM countries, the Group of Three (Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico), Central America (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua), the non-grouped members (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Panama) and the Associate Members of French and Dutch territories.



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