Caribbean Sea

Caribbean Sea Ecosystem Assessment (CARSEA)

Project Summary

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 deterioration.

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.

Assessment Approach

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.

Lead Institutions

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).

Contact information

  • 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.

Focal Issues

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 these services.

Ecosystems services assessed

Fishing and tourism; the effects of climate change on fishing and tourism and related ecosystem services.

Project Results

Fish production

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 Caribbean.

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.

Amenity value

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.

Climate regulation

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 the coast.


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 region.
  • To assess the effectiveness of existing programmes at all levels, and to offer advice as to how they may be improved and better coordinated.
  • 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.



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