Harnessing the economic potential of the Caribbean’s marine environment
The waters around the Caribbean are some of the most heavily populated in the world, home to a diverse array of marine species and providing a livelihood for many of the region’s 40 million inhabitants. The importance of the ocean to small island nations such as Saint Lucia cannot be overstated. From tourism to agriculture, these crystal clear and turquoise waters are much more than just a beautiful backdrop. They are at the heart of life in the Caribbean and central to what many economists are now calling ‘the blue economy’.
WHAT IS THE BLUE ECONOMY?
Caribbean waters generated US$407 billion in 2012, according to a report from the World Bank released last year. This amounts to over 17 per cent of the region’s GDP and was mainly derived from the fisheries and aquaculture, oil and gas, and shipping industries. The blue economy is where this type of economic activity intersects with sustainable environmental practices – reaping the rewards of the ocean and unlocking its economic potential while preserving the health of marine life and ecosystems.
“The blue economy is balancing ocean health with ocean wealth so it is possible to make use of ocean resources on a continuous basis for current and future generations,” says David Robin, Programme Co-ordinator of Ocean Governance and Fisheries at the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).
The World Bank breaks down the blue economy in the Caribbean into three distinct categories. The first is living resources, which include conch, reef fish and large pelagic species. The second, non-living resources, covers oil and gas deposits such as those in Trinidad and Tobago. The remaining segment of the economy is ecosystems. The Caribbean waters have the highest level of species diversity in the tropical Atlantic, making the area a hotspot for marine life. Mangroves, coral reefs and deep ocean habitats not only attract a plethora of underwater life but also nature-loving tourists. Each year millions of divers, anglers, yachters, watersports enthusiasts, boaters and eco-tourists visit the Caribbean to experience the tropical waters for themselves, making a substantial contribution to the regional and local economies.
FINDING A BALANCE
Harnessing natural capital requires a careful balancing act. Exploiting ocean resources must go hand in hand with protecting those same resources. The region’s waters are facing many threats, some man-made, some natural, but all obstacles to the growth of the blue economy.
While the need for sustainable fisheries has long been acknowledged, fish stocks continue to decline as demand increases but yield shrinks. Over-exploitation of certain species has not only reduced those species populations but had a ripple effect on the entire ecosystem. Disturbing the delicate balance of the ocean’s inhabitants has indirectly led to overgrowth of algae and damaged coral reefs.
Around 75 per cent of the region’s reefs are considered at risk of human activity. Not confined to overfishing, this also includes coastal development and pollution. Over 41 million people in the Caribbean live within 10 km of the sea. Waterfront resorts, marinas, beachfront condos – all place a burden on the ocean, particularly in the construction phase when land is often extensively cleared and sand is dredged.
Pollution has also taken its toll on the pristine Caribbean waters. Around 85 per cent of wastewater dumped into the region’s seas is untreated, causing algae bloom and so-called ‘dead zones’. In addition, plastic debris is being discarded into the water at an alarming rate. According to the World Bank, by 2025 0.29-0.79 million metric tons of plastic will be emptied into the oceans each year.
POLICY AND PARTNERSHIP
For Eastern Caribbean countries the concept of the marine economy is nothing new. Small island states such as Saint Lucia have long been dependent on the water and know that it is integral to the country’s economic and social survival.
“Like many other Caribbean states, the members of the OECS have significantly more ocean space than land, some in the order of 100 times more,” says Robin. “Given the risks we face, our challenges and vulnerabilities, we are working to make sure those ocean spaces work for us. The OECS has been talking about the ocean for over three decades. It is not something we have just arrived at. We may find that we have not had the best practices in some instances but the awareness of our dependence on the ocean goes back centuries.”
In 2013 the OECS launched its Eastern Caribbean Regional Ocean Policy (ECROP) to create a comprehensive framework that meets global best practices in sustainable marine management. And last month the organisation received a US$6.3m grant from the World Bank to build on this initiative through the Caribbean Regional Oceanscape Project (CROP) .
Funded by the World Bank’s Global Environmental Facility, CROP aims to assist Eastern Caribbean nations in implementing regional policies to protect their marine economies. Activities under the project will include mapping ocean assets, collaborating with private sector technology companies to promote ocean education, and improving ocean data.
A large component of CROP is education. Robin says one of the key aims is to build awareness among stakeholders at every level – from fishermen to senior government officials. The programme intends to launch a ‘virtual university’ where a raft of educational resources will be available.
The political will for a blue economy is there, according to Robin, and has been proven by the raft of legislation, policy and regulation crafted for the marine environment. But drawing all that know-how together and devising a common approach will take an unprecedented level of partnership – not just between regional governments but also between the public and private sectors. Robin says it is a big task, but one that is achievable, especially given what’s at stake. “The political will is there, it’s already been demonstrated,” he says. “We hope CROP will be a catalyst for more input and partnership. It is vital to have an integrated approach to management of the ocean.”
While the benefits of CROP and ECROP may not be felt for many years, particularly at a national level, they represent an important step towards a greater goal. The organisation hopes that putting in place sustainable policies now will reap great rewards in the future, in addition to building a solid foundation for change, based on regional partnerships and enhanced awareness.