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Earth Today | Critical ocean economy sectors in hot water

Published:Thursday | December 17, 2020 | 12:23 AM

RESEARCHERS HAVE once again sound the alarm on the climate change vulnerability of tourism, fisheries, shipping and trade as vital players in the Caribbean’s multibillion-dollar ocean economy.

“The tourism sector is a significant employer and contributes millions to the Caribbean economy. Climate extremes and in particular hurricanes pose a direct threat in the form of damages incurred to coastal structures (e.g. hotels,marinas) and supporting infrastructure (e.g. roads, communication networks, airports, etc.) from strong winds, intense rainfall and significant inland flooding exacerbated by higher sea levels,” writes the group of researchers who include Professor Michael Taylor, Professor Mona Webber, Dr Tannecia Stephenson and Felicia Whyte.

They were writing in the book ‘The Caribbean Blue Economy’ published in October this year and under the chapter titled ‘Implications of climate change for Blue Economies in the Wider Caribbean’.

“It was estimated that the 2017 hurricane season, which saw three category 5 hurricanes traverse the Caribbean Sea, set back the region’s tourism sector by up to four years (provided there were no further serious impacts from hurricanes for a few years thereafter). The vulnerability of the sector to direct impact damages will only likely increase given the future projections of increased frequency of the most intense storms,” they added, highlighting the tourism case.

Crucial inks

What is more, they have pointed to the crucial inks between the vulnerability of living resources to climate change and the key sectors’ capacity to build resilience.

“The degradation of marine-based environmental destination assets, including biodiversity (e.g. coral reef attractions) and beaches, through repeated storm events and from slow onset change (e.g. rising temperatures and sea levels) also represents a challenge. There are, for example, direct linkages between the loss of corals due to rising ocean temperatures, the vulnerability of the beach to erosion during strong wave events (as coral reefs break wave action), and the attractiveness of dive tourism,” they noted.

“Approximately 30% of 900 coastal resorts in 19 Caribbean countries could be partially or fully inundated under one metre sea level rise, while a substantially higher proportion (49–60%) would be vulnerable due to the associated coastal erosion,” they added.

Things are also challenging for fisheries which earns more than US$6 billion each year while providing more than 10 per cent of the region’s protein while employing hundreds of thousands of people region-wide.

“Climate change variations and the resulting impacts are already posing significant risk to the Caribbean Sea’s fish stocks and fisheries, especially when combined with other threats including developments, pollution of coastal waters and overfishing,” Taylor and his colleagues wrote.

“Changes in environmental conditions impact abundance, distribution and availability of fish populations, while the increasing frequency of extreme climate events affect fish habitat, productivity and distribution, and have direct impacts on coastal communities dependent on the fishing industry. Many of these communities are already vulnerable due to poverty and the lack of social services and essential infrastructure,” they added.

Shipping in danger

There is a similar reality for shipping and trade on which Caribbean islands rely for access to the larger global community.

According to the researchers, for one metre sea level rise, it is projected that 3108 km2 of Caribbean coastal land will be lost, 21 out of 64 (32%) of CARICOM airports inundated, and 80% of CARICOM ports will have adjacent lands inundated if no protective measures are undertaken.

The reality is one that calls for urgent and comprehensive action, they have reminded.

“A raft of adaptation strategies and interventions will be needed in the wider Caribbean to respond to climate’s threats to the Blue Economy and to tackle the integrated nature of the threat,” Webber and the others wrote.

“A part of the challenge of responding is determining which adaptation actions and strategies are most feasible, when are they best applied, and if the capacity and resources exist to undertake them,” they added.