Transitioning from a Tourism-Dependent Region to a Sustainable Paradise: The Caribbean Case Study pt. I

Photo by Global Finance Magazine

Photo by Global Finance Magazine

Did you know that the Caribbean is the most tourism-dependent region on earth? Out of the top 25 countries that have more than 25% tourism contribution to GDP, 15 are located in the Caribbean. The Caribbean Sea is home to around ten percent of the world’s coral reefs, including the largest coral system in the Northern Hemisphere and the highest concentration of marine species in the Atlantic Ocean. With these factors taken into consideration, you can understand why the environment is so important for a thriving tourism sector.

Until now this all-in strategy of structuring the economic activity of the islands around the tourism industry has worked (to some extent), but the human impacts on marine ecosystems is starting to take its toll. Even with a heavy reliance on tourism, many of these island nations unfortunately do not always act in their best interests and are in fact causing harm to their most precious asset: the natural environment. In this blog, I will explore the pressures that human activities, especially tourism and fishing, are having on the natural environment of the Caribbean.

Pressures on the marine environment have primarily been attributed to by climate change, overharvesting, pollution, disease and invasive species. An increase in tourism development has also resulted in a loss and degradation of critical marine and coastal ecosystems. Unsustainable tourism has strained natural ecosystem limits, sometimes to a point beyond repair. The list of unsustainable tourism impacts is long, but a recent example that has been highlighted in the news is the effect certain chemicals in sunscreen have on coral. Known effects include bleaching of hard coral, induction of viral infections, damage and deformation of coral larvae, and damage to coral DNA and reproductive success.

Another big threat to the unique marine ecosystems of the Caribbean is the fisheries industry. In terms of landings, the Caribbean is only small scale compared with giant fishing nations such as Japan, the US, Iceland and Spain, but it does provide necessary incomes for local economies. Fishing remains largely unregulated on many of the islands and as a result of rising fishing pressure, stocks have been decreasing.  

The increased pressure from the fishing industry has also impacted marine ecosystems. All major commercially important fishery species are “fully developed” or in other words overexploited, and 70 percent of reefs across the region are threatened with overfishing. Overfishing is also a big part of the reason for region-wide phase shifts from coral dominance to algae dominance on coral reefs, which is incredibly worrying since declining coral cover means fishing stocks will in return also be negatively affected. In simple terms, i’ll explain why. Overfishing has caused the elimination of most herbivores from coral reefs. The grazing of algae facilitates stony coral recruitment, which in turn provides vital habitat and nursery areas for a variety of (commercial) species. But the current decrease in stony coral cover, due to the pressures mentioned above, causes much faster growing algae to take over. Due to decreased resilience because of ecological processes and/or environmental conditions, negative feedback loops establish and make it very hard for ecosystems to revert back to coral dominance. 

Here in part one of this blog, I have highlighted some of the pressures of tourism and fishing on the natural environment, but this is only a small part of the story. The sad truth is that coral reefs across the region are on the verge of collapse with less than ten percent of reef area showing live coral cover. This dire fact is in parallel with what is happening all over the world, but luckily conservation efforts can be very effective. In my next blog post I will write about the potential for regions like the Caribbean to learn from how Baja California uses their biodiversity and local community involvement to diversify their domestic and regional economy, while keeping in mind the need to conserve their most precious attractions and wildlife.