The boundaries of the CLME Project encompass the Caribbean Sea LME and the North Brazil Shelf LME and include 26 countries and 19 dependent territories of France, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States. These countries range from among the largest (e.g. Brazil, USA) to among the smallest (e.g. Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis), and from the most developed to the least developed.

Consequently, there is an extremely wide range in their capacities for living marine resource management. Throughout the region, the majority of the population inhabits the coastal zone, and there is a very high dependence on marine resources for livelihoods from fishing and tourism, particularly among the small island developing states (SIDS), of which there are 16. In addition 18 of the 19 dependent territories are SIDS. The region is characterized by a diversity of national and regional governance and institution arrangements, stemming primarily from the governance structures established by the countries that colonized the region.

 

Physical and geographical characteristics

The Caribbean Sea is a semi-enclosed ocean basin bounded by the Lesser Antilles to the east and southeast, the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico) to the north, and by Central America to the west and southwest. It is located within the tropics and covers 1,943,000 km2. The Wider Caribbean, which includes the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the adjacent parts of the Atlantic Ocean encompasses an area of 2,515,900 km2 and is the second largest sea in the world. (Bjorn 1997, Sheppard 2000, IUCN 2003). It is noted for its many islands, including the Leeward and Windward Islands situated on its eastern boundary, Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. There is little seasonal variation in surface water temperatures. Temperatures range from 25.5 °C in the winter to 28 °C in the summer.

The adjacent region of the North Brazil Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem is characterized by its tropical climate. It extends in the Atlantic Ocean from the boundary with the Caribbean Sea to the Paraiba River estuary in Brazil. The LME owes its unity to the North Brazil Current, which flows parallel to Brazil’s coast and is an extension of the South Equatorial Current coming from the East. The LME is characterized by a wide shelf, and features macrotides and upwellings along the shelf edge. It has moderately diverse food webs and high production due in part to the high levels of nutrients coming from the Amazon and Tocantins rivers, as well as from the smaller rivers of the Amapa and western Para coastal plains.

The Caribbean Sea averages depths of 2,200 m, with the deepest part, known as the Cayman trench, plunging to 7,100 m. The drainage basin of the Wider Caribbean covers 7.5 million km2 and encompasses eight major river systems, from the Mississippi to the Orinoco (Hinrichsen 1998).

The region is highly susceptible to natural disasters. Most of the islands and the Central American countries lie within the hurricane belt and are vulnerable to frequent damage from strong winds and storm surges. Recent major natural disasters include hurricanes Gilbert (1988) and Hugo (1989), the eruptions of the Soufriere Hills Volcano in Montserrat (1997) and the Piparo Mud Volcano in Trinidad (1997), as well as drought conditions in Cuba and Jamaica during 1997-98, attributed to the El Niño phenomenon. More recently Hurricane Georges devastated large areas, as did Hurricanes Mitch and Ivan (2004). In the case of Ivan, damages were extensive to both natural and infrastructural assets, with estimates reported by Grenada of US$815 million, the Cayman Islands US$1.85 billion, Jamaica US$360 million and Cuba US$1.2 billion. Although the intense category 5 hurricanes Katrina and Rita did not make landfall in the Caribbean, in 2005, Hurricane Wilma devastated the Yucatan peninsula and has the distinction of being the most intense hurricane on record in the Atlantic.

 

Ecological status

The marine and coastal systems of the region support a complex interaction of distinct ecosystems, with an enormous biodiversity, and are among the most productive in the world. As mentioned above, several of the world's largest and most productive estuaries (Amazon and Orinoco) are found in the region. The coast of Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world extending some 250 kilometers and covering approximately 22,800 km2. The region's coastal zone is significant, encompassing entire countries for many of the island nations.

 

Fish and Fisheries

A wide range of fisheries activities (industrial, artisanal and recreational) coexist in the CLME Project area. Overall landings from the main fisheries rose from around 177,000 tonnes in 1975 to a peak of 1,000,000 tonnes in 1995 before declining to around 800,000 tonnes in 2005. The total landings from all fisheries shows the decline over the last decade.

In the reef fish fisheries, declines in overall landings are rarely observed; instead, there are shifts in species composition. For instance a decline in the percentage of snapper and grouper in the catch, the larger, long-lived predators, is an indication of over exploitation; although not in the Caribbean Large Marine Ecosystem, this pattern was evident in Bermuda between 1969 and 1975 where the percentage of snappers and groupers declined from 67% to 38% and also on the north coast of Jamaica between 1981 and 1990 where the 11 decline was from 26% to 12%. According to an FAO assessment, some 35% of the region's stocks are overexploited.

The fisheries of the Caribbean Region are based upon a diverse array of resources. The fisheries of greatest importance are for offshore pelagics, reef fishes, lobster, conch, shrimps, continental shelf demersal fishes, deep slope and bank fishes and coastal pelagics. There is a variety of less important fisheries such as for marine mammals, sea turtles, sea urchins, and seaweeds. The management and governance of these fisheries varies greatly and is fragmented with incomplete or absent frameworks at the sub-regional and regional levels and weak vertical and horizontal linkages. The fishery types vary widely in exploitation; vessel and gear used, and approach to their development and management. However, most coastal resources are considered to be overexploited and there is increasing evidence that pelagic predator biomass has been severely depleted (FAO 1998, Mahon 2002, Myers and Worm 2003).

Recreational fishing, an important but undocumented contributor to tourism economies, is an important link between shared resource management and tourism, as the preferred species are mainly predatory migratory pelagics (e.g. billfishes, wahoo, and dolphinfish). This aspect of shared resource management has received minimal attention in most Caribbean countries (Mahon and McConney 2004).

 

Pollution and Ecosystem Health

Pollution, mainly from land-based sources, and degradation of nearshore habitats are among the major threats to the region’s living marine resources. The CLME is showing signs of environmental stress, particularly in the shallow waters of coral reef systems and in semi-enclosed bays. Coastal water quality has been declining throughout the region, due to a number of factors including rapid population growth in coastal areas, poor land-use practices and increasing discharges of untreated municipal and industrial waste and agricultural pesticides and fertilizers.

Throughout the region, pollution by a range of substances and sources including sewage, nutrients, sediments, petroleum hydrocarbons and heavy metals is of increasing concern. The GIWA studies identified a number of pollution hotspots in the region, mainly around the coastal cities. Pollution has significant transboundary implications, as a result of the high potential for transport across EEZs in wind and ocean currents. Not only could this cause degradation of living marine resources in places far from the source, but it could also pose a threat to human and animal health by the introduction of pathogens. Pollution has been implicated in the increasing episodes of fish kills in the region, although this is not conclusive.

 

Socio-economic situation

The physical expanse of the region's coastal zone is significant, encompassing the entire land mass for many of the islands. Additionally, for countries such as the island nations of the Caribbean, Panama and Costa Rica, marine territory represents more than 50% of the total area under national sovereignty. In general, the region’s coastal zone is where the majority of it human population live and where most economic activities also take place. In 2001, the population of the Caribbean Sea region (not including the United States) was around 102 million, of which it is estimated that 59% is in Colombia and Venezuela, 27% is in Cuba and Hispaniola, 10% is in Central America and Mexico, and 3% is in the Small Islands.

Taking into account the population growth rate for each country in the Caribbean Sea region, it is expected that the number of inhabitants would be close to 123 million in 2020. When the population for Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and the regions of Brazil and Florida that comprise the CLME Project are included, this number is expected to increase to approximately 130 million.

Almost all the countries in the region are among the world’s premier tourism destinations, providing an important source of income for their economies. The population in the Caribbean Sea region swells during the tourist season by the influx of millions of tourists, mostly in beach destinations. In 2004, for example, the Mexican state of Quintana Roo received 10.8 million tourists with over 35% of those arriving by cruise ships.

There is a high dependence on living marine resources for food, employment and income from fishing and tourism, particularly among the SIDS. Although its contribution to GDP is relatively low, marine fisheries production is a significant source of food, employment, and foreign exchange earnings in the Insular Caribbean countries (FAO 2007). The number of people actively involved in fisheries was estimated by CARSEA (2003) to be approximately 505,000 in the 1990s, a doubling of the numbers involved during the 1980s.

Economic growth has failed to keep pace with population growth in many of the countries and widespread poverty still exists, with some 38% of the population in the Caribbean region classified as poor.