CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE CARIBBEAN
Global warming is a global challenge. It has the potential to impact the world as a whole, in tandem with individual regions. It will also impact specific industry in specific ways. The local fishing industry is especially vulnerable to its impact, given the region is already warm, coastal and reliant upon the ocean for ongoing trade, business, and, indeed, basic existence.
The impact of a hurricane upon the fishing industry is recognised. Not only is there the risk of boats and infrastructure being damaged but the damage to life above water is mirrored below it. Hurricanes not only dislocate an array of marine life but destroy much of the ocean’s natural ecology. Painful as it is now to imagine after-events of recent times, ultimately the displaced fish can return and so, too, the food sources upon which they feed.
There is no such prospect with the damage climate change can do. A rise in ocean temperatures that makes waterways too warm to be habitable for a species means displaced marine life will never return, and never can the fishing industry that depends upon it. Identifying what can be done here first requires a recap of the essential issues as they exist.
WHAT IS THE ISSUE?
Measured from 1880 to 2012, the Earth’s temperature is held to have risen around 1.53 degrees. To those reading that statistic for the first time, it may sound incidental but the significance of it is apparent once it’s recognised it takes only a one degree increase in the Earth’s temperature for sea levels to rise up to six feet.
It is true that estimates vary from one authority to another - and, in turn, so too may a few sceptics suggest that 1.53 degrees over 132 years isn’t so bad - but this notion is quickly brought undone by the reality that 2016 was the hottest year on record. Put simply, it may have taken over a century for temperatures to rise over one degree, but hitting the milestone of two degrees could come far sooner. But how is climate change impacting Caribbean fishing here and now?
HOW IT IMPACTS AND WHAT’S BEEN DONE
However one may worry with fear over the impact of climate change in the future, it’s a reality that immense damage has already occurred to our region’s waterways and our fishing industry as a result. A 2012 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found the region’s corals had diminished by more than half since 1970.
While the impact of this is devastating, the link to its impact on fishing in the region is not complex. With damaged coral reefs comes diminished marine life around it. This factor is already huge but even more so when compounded with the dramatic changes climate change brings to the ecology of marine life via displacement of species, their greater exposure to predators, and a host of other factors.
In turn, the business model of many fisheries can be impacted greatly by the loss of a particular species. While a healthy Caribbean reef may play host to a variety of species, a fishery operating out of Saint Lucia or Martinique no longer able to fish a particular species can find market demand and other business realities mean sourcing another fish for sale is not easy.
Beyond the direct environmental impact of global warming to fishing is the ancillary effect of climate change to the industry. Good work has been done in recent times by a number of Caribbean nations to work against the illegal fishing industry. The 2016 treaty signed by Barbados, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Guyana, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Uruguay to combat illegal fishing is a core example of this.
These efforts should be observed and applauded. Yet it’s also easy to recognise how the desperation of diminished business could quickly lead a fishery in a nation like Haiti, Jamaica or the Cayman Islands to accept charter of an illegal fishing group. Desperate times for a business can result in desperate measures, and the growth of illegal fishing remains a real risk in future.
More widely, diminished sea traffic in hotspots - such as bleached coral reefs that were previous tourism destinations - can grow the risk of dumping and other illegal activity that previously would not have been attempted with a more populated use of the area. This also applies to the greater cost of building new infrastructure and maintaining maritime security when previous natural defences like coral reefs served to guard against illegal sailing, smuggling, and more.
Just as ‘prevention is better than cure’ surely applies to climate change, so too is it also a guiding star in addressing its broader effects. Keeping fisheries in business is vital to those in the industry, certainly, but also the broader community as it seeks to maintain our natural resources and combat the greater risk of crime and pollution that would come with inaction. The impact of climate change on regional fisheries is clear; what about action to defend against it?
As a leader in tourism the Caribbean region can be a leader in the green movement as a whole. It is known the region faces unique strategic challenges. This is confined not only to fisheries but to climate change all over. This notwithstanding, the obvious impact of its effects already has spurred action in the region.
Initiatives like the foundation of the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) and Caribbean Climate Innovation Centre (CCIC) have provided a strong foundation in promoting ideas and businesses that develop green solutions. There has also been the successful promotion of growth at a grassroots level, as aid funding has seen new start-ups grow across the region.
Similarly, the development of pilot programmes like the Caribbean Ocean Assets Sustainability Facility (COAST) aspires to not only provide insurance to fisheries in the event of extreme weather but also to grow cooperation and action surrounding conservation in the region. Each of these programmes represent ideas in action, and each offers the potential to make solid inroads in future.
Another key initiative to watch going forward will be the outcome of the Climate Investment Fund’s Pilot Programme for Climate Resilience (PPCR). The US$10 million study will deliver key data to aid in fisheries management across the region. Climate change will always be an issue informed by partisan politics but contemporary and persuasive data will go a long way to generate bipartisan consensus on action in future.
Alongside the aforementioned, the need to prevent overfishing also can’t go unmentioned. While warming temperatures have played a role in the decline of Caribbean coral, so too has overfishing of the parrotfish, a species that feeds upon algae that latches onto coral and hastens its decline. Everyone involved in the industry, from a solo operator all the way up to government leaders, has a key role to play in preventing overfishing.
Beyond the challenges of generating action on the government level long-term, what cannot be debated is that straightforward‚ common sense solutions will always find an audience, and have the potential to impact today. A Caribbean fishery that practises environmentally friendly fishing‚ a tourism business that uses bicycles over buses, and a resort that uses solar panels to power its electricity‚ can ensure visitors leave not only with happy memories and the promise to visit again but also practical solutions to use back home.
Sure the efforts of these changes won’t all be seen overnight, but nor shall the impact of climate change. Good work in the former can yet see much progress made to stop the damage and danger of the latter. It can also create strong momentum on the grassroots level for greater action at the governmental level.
Immense damage has already occurred to our region’s waterways