Caribbean Sea Ecosystem Assessment (CARSEA)
The semi-enclosed Caribbean Sea is a distinct ecological region,
bounded to the north by the Bahamas and the Florida Keys, to the east by
the Windward Islands, to the south by South America, and to the west by
the isthmus of Central America. The Caribbean is the second largest sea
in the world and covers an area of more than 3.2 million square
kilometers. Included in the CARSEA assessment are the Caribbean Sea, the
islands within the Sea and bordering it, and the river basins of
continental territories draining into the Sea.
As the home to more than 116 million people of 22 independent states,
the Caribbean has a complex political structure. Cooperative management
is complicated by a history of struggle for control of the resources of
the region, high cultural diversity, and lack of common agenda for
sustainable use of the natural resources of the Caribbean. Economic
well-being in the region is highly dependent upon tourism and fishing.
The Caribbean is more dependent upon tourism than any other part of the
world, relative to its size. Fishing is also a significant source of
both income and subsistence for much of the population. Both of these
services are, however, directly threatened by environmental
Direct drivers of change in capacity of the ecosystem to provide
services are changes in coastal land and sea use, sewage pollution,
over-fishing, global climate change, river discharge, and alien species
introduction. Urbanisation of coastal communities, high investment in
unsustainable tourism, lack of coordinated governance, and international
shipping rules unfavourable to environmental conservation are indirect
drivers of change in ecosystem service capacity.
Results of the scenarios exercise in the Caribbean Sea sub-global
assessment (CARSEA) indicate that long-term coordination for sustainable
use of the Caribbean’s natural resources amongst stakeholder countries
is the most effective and practical activity to ensure improvement and
maintenance of ecosystems services in the region.
The time frame evaluated for key ecosystem services were the
following: amenity value (1990–2003); fish production (1950–2000);
desalinated water (1992–2000); coral reef cover (1977–2002); and climate
regulation (1910–2000). Four scenarios were developed to the year 2050:
Neo-plantation Economy, Quality over Quantity, Diversify Together, and
Growing Asymmetries. The targeted audience for this assessment are
policy-makers, and others involved in management and conservation of the
Caribbean Sea ecosystem.
CARSEA was led by the University of the West Indies (UWI) St.
Augustine and The Cropper Foundation, in collaboration with The
Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) of Trinidad and Tobago, the United
Nations Environment Programme Regional Office for Latin America and the
Caribbean (UNEP ROLAC), the Caribbean Conservation Association (CCA),
and the Caribbean Agricultural Development Research Institute (CARDI).
- John Agard
Department of Life Sciences
University of the West Indies, St. Augustine,
Trinidad and Tobago
Funding for the assessment was provided by the MA, The International
Development Research Center of Canada (IDRC), UNEP ROLAC and the Cropper
Foundation. A follow-up project to CARSEA, funded by the IDRC, was
jointly initiated by The Cropper Foundation and the University of the
West Indies in 2005 to continue work towards better cooperative
management of the Caribbean Sea.
The focus of this study was the two ecosystem services that are the
primary sources of income for the Caribbean: tourism and fishing. The
beaches, coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds all help to sustain
Ecosystems services assessed
Fishing and tourism; the effects of climate change on fishing and
tourism and related ecosystem services.
All the major commercially important species and groups of species in
the region are reported to be fully developed or over-exploited. Conch,
for example, has been listed as endangered by the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Indicators also point
towards the phenomenon known as “fishing down the food web”, in which
longer-lived, predatory fish become more scarce and the average trophic
level of the ecosystem shifts. Lack of political authority and
coordination for fisheries conservation is an on-going problem in the
Coral reef cover
From 1977 to 2001, typical live coral cover has, with high certainty,
declined from more than 50% in 1977 to about 10–15% in many shallow
Caribbean Sea reefs. Studies in 2004 suggest that reefs in waters deeper
than about 10 meters and also far from land or next to small populations
are much healthier. Continued decline of coral reefs could cost between
US$350 million and US$870 million per year by 2050.
With high certainty, data from the World Tourism and Travel Council
(WTTC) show that relative to its size, the Caribbean scores highest in
several key categories when its dependence on tourism is compared with
other regions on a global scale. Thus the Caribbean is the region in the
world most dependent on tourism for jobs and income. In 2003, the
Caribbean’s travel and tourism economy accounted directly and indirectly
for: 1,857,000 jobs representing 12.0% of total employment; US$23.1
billion of GDP, equivalent to 13.0% of total GDP; US$16.2 billion of
exports services and merchandise, or 16.5% of total exports; and US$7.6
billion of capital investment, or 22.3% of total investment.
Elevated sea temperature episodes in the last decade are the most
likely cause of increasingly frequent occurrences of coral reef
bleaching in the Caribbean. Since 1998, it is known with high certainty
that the region has seen a trend of increasing frequency of tropical
cyclones. Deaths and damage to property and ecosystems have also
increased incrementally due to interaction with rapid urbanization on
Four scenarios were developed to the year 2050: Neo-plantation
Economy, Quality over Quantity, Diversify Together, and Growing
Asymmetries. The scenarios indicate that tangible costs and benefits
vary little between the different scenarios in the medium and short
term. Significant differences in scenario outcomes were evident only
towards the middle part of the century, when continued neglect of
ecosystems could result in such degraded environments that the Caribbean
would lose its tourist appeal, and fishing stocks would collapse.
To address the shortcomings of current management of the Caribbean
Sea ecosystem, a new technical commission or council, with
responsibility for the entire region (ie the Wider Caribbean) should be
formed. This council should have the following mandate:
- To monitor and assess the condition of the Caribbean Sea as an
ecosystem, and to use that information to inform policy in the
- To assess the effectiveness of existing programmes at all
levels, and to offer advice as to how they may be improved and
- To initiate studies on specific policy options available to
decision-makers in the region, for example economic policy
instruments to enhance the protection of ecosystem functions.
- To act as a catalyst to achieve better co-ordination between the
disparate institutions whose decisions affect the Caribbean Sea, and
to promote greater co-operation with states outside the region,
whose activities have an impact on its ecosystem.
- To provide continuing analysis of the impacts of policies and
programmes, so that the correct lessons can be fed back into better
design of future measures.
To avoid adding to the complexity of the existing governance of the
Caribbean, it is not suggested that this body should be a new
institution, but rather that it should reside within one or other of the
existing inter-governmental groups. It is pleasing to note that the
Association of Caribbean States (ACS) has already set up a Commission of
the Caribbean Sea, which shares many of the features of the proposal
outlined in this assessment.