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Environmental Issues A to Z

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Algal Blooms
An imbalance in the nutrient ratio of the aquatic ecosystem changes its structure and functions, producing negative impacts, including toxic algal blooms, often called “red tides”. According to recent studies, harmful algal blooms and hypoxia have always existed, but the increase in the last decades is, in some cases, clearly related to human development. For example, algal growth has increased on the coral reefs of Belize due to the discharge of sewage in the Hondo River (between Mexico and Belize) and in the Chetumal Bay Basin.
Biodiversity
Biodiversity is the term given to the variety of life on Earth and the natural patterns it forms. The coral reefs of the Caribbean are an example of nature’s most biologically diverse marine ecosystems. Fish, corals, lobsters, clams, seahorses, sponges, seals and sea turtles are only a few of the creatures supported by the reef structure. Yet this rich diversity is being lost at a greatly accelerated rate because of human activities, such as pollution, overfishing, tourism and boating. The loss of biodiversity threatens our food supplies, opportunities for recreation and tourism, and sources of wood, medicines and energy.
Climate Change

The two dozen island nations of the Caribbean, and the 40 million people who live there, are in the front lines of vulnerability to climate change. Hotter temperatures, sea-level rise and increased hurricane intensity threaten lives, property and livelihoods throughout the Caribbean. As ocean levels rise, the smallest, low-lying islands may disappear under the waves. As temperatures rise and storms become more severe, tourism―the life-blood of many Caribbean economies―will shrink and with it both private incomes and the public tax revenues that support education, social services, and infrastructure.

Coral Reefs

The Caribbean region has an estimated 26,000 km2 of coral reef surface, possessing an estimated 7% of the world’s shallow coral reefs. These reefs are vital to the livelihoods and well-being of the Caribbean people, providing food, employment, recreation and protection for coastlines. Coastal development including construction, urban run-off, tourist development and sewage discharge threatens 1/3 of the reefs of the Caribbean. Moreover, global warming and associated climate changes are threatening coral reefs by increasing average ocean temperatures and acidification, causing sea level rise, and altering ocean circulation patterns.

Energy

Most Caribbean countries are heavily dependent on imported petroleum products, mostly for electricity generation and transport. They are also dependent on indigenous biomass fuels for cooking and crop-drying. The electricity-generating sector is the major source of air borne emissions in the region. More recently, the region has been giving increasing attention to the development of renewable energy sources. During the past two decades, over 120 projects and studies, estimated at US$30 million, have been undertaken on various aspects of renewable energy.

Fisheries

The fisheries sector in the Caribbean employs full time-fishers, many part time workers, and indirectly provides jobs for thousands of people in processing, marketing, boat building, net making, and other support services. In the year 2000, it was estimated that fisheries production in the Caribbean had a net economic value of $312 million per year. It was also estimated that by 2015 the fisheries sector would decline in value by $95 - 139 million, due to coral reef degradation.

Health

The condition of the marine environment is an important factor in human health, especially to those living in coastal communities and persons who engage in recreational activities offered by the sea. Human communities are at risk from the health implications of degraded ecosystems threatened by human activities. Pollution directly affects organisms and indirectly affects human health and resources. Sewage, nutrients, and chemicals affect the health of our marine and coastal environment and put us at risk.

Heavy Metals

Heavy metals normally occur in nature and are essential to life but can become toxic through accumulation in organisms. Arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, nickel, lead and mercury are the most common heavy metals which can pollute the environment. Mercury, lead and cadmium are of greatest concern because of their ability to travel long distances in the atmosphere.

Hydrocarbons

Hydrocarbons are organic compounds containing carbon and hydrogen and found in crude oil and natural gas. Hydrocarbons are formed from the remains of marine animals and plants that lived in shallow inland seas, died, and drifted to the bottom. The term petroleum is used as a common denotation for crude oil (mineral oil) and natural gas, i.e., the hydrocarbons from which various oil and gas products are made.

Mangroves

Mangroves are salt loving plants (halophytes) with extensive root systems, which grow in swampy areas of sheltered tropical and sub-tropical shores. Considered one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, they serve a variety of functions, including providing a habitat for wildlife, nursery grounds for fish and shellfish, and protecting coastal and inland areas from waves and storms.

Marine and Coastal Ecosystems

Marine and Coastal Ecosystems are important to the prevention of coastal erosion. Coral reefs dissipate wave and storm energy and create lagoons and sedimentary environments favourable for the growth of mangroves and seagrasses. Mangroves and seagrasses bind marine and terrestrial sediments, reducing coastal erosion and supporting clear waters favourable to corals. In the Caribbean, hurricanes and tropical storms are the major threats to coastal erosion. The value of the benefits of shoreline protection across the Caribbean region is estimated to be between US$740 million and US$2.2 billion per year.

Marine Invasive Species

Increasingly, invasive species are seen as a threat to indigenous biodiversity, through their impacts on natural and semi-natural habitats and ecosystems and are now widely cited as the second greatest global threat to biodiversity, after habitat destruction. Little is known or documented on the status of marine invasive species in the Caribbean beyond a few instances (e.g. Perna viridis - green mussel). There is a gap in knowledge regarding the status of introduced organisms in the marine environment, and the threat that these may constitute.

Marine Litter

Marine litter (debris) is any manufactured or processed solid waste material that enters the marine environment from any source. It is one of the world’s most pervasive pollution problems affecting our oceans and inland waterways. Land-based sources of debris are documented to have a profound impact on tourism, human health and safety. Ocean-based debris forms (e.g. fishing nets, gear and supplies, rope, fish traps, sheeting/tarps, and strapping bands) can also be harmful to wildlife (entanglement and ingestion) and damaging to sensitive aquatic habitats like coral reefs and sea grass beds.

Marine Mammals

At least 32 species of marine mammals have been documented from the region―six species of baleen whales (Mysticeti), 24 species of toothed whales (Odontoceti), one sirenian (the West Indian manatee), and three pinnipeds (the Caribbean monk seal, the hooded seal, and the California sea lion). Regional success in managing and conserving marine mammals will ultimately depend on countries’ commitment to build their internal capacities and to establish regional conservation priorities, standards, and strategies for marine mammal conservation and education.

Marine Protected Areas

IUCN has defined a Marine Protected Area (MPA) as “any area of intertidal or sub tidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment”. By protecting habitats, MPAs provide an essential foundation for sustainable, nature-based tourism, which is becoming a world industry and provides major benefits to local communities, and act as an insurance policy for fisheries.

Nutrients

Land-based activities resulting in agricultural runoff, sewage and industrial discharges, and atmospheric releases from fossil fuel combustion are the main anthropogenic sources of nutrients to the marine environment. An imbalance in the nutrient ratio of the aquatic ecosystem changes its structure and functions.  One of the main negative impacts is eutrophication, or the increased loading of nutrients (especially nitrogen and phosphorus) to freshwater or marine systems, which in turn leads to increases in plant growth and often to undesirable changes in ecosystem structure and function.

Oil Spills

Oil spills can have serious negative environmental and socio-economical impacts.  Marine and coastal habitats, wildlife species, recreational activities and fisheries, are among the resources and sectors that can be negatively affected by oil spills. The oil harms the wildlife in two main ways; through toxic contamination (inhalation or ingestion) or by physical contact.

Persistent Organic Pollutants

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) are a set of toxic chemicals that are persistent in the environment and able to last for several years before breaking down. POPs are highly toxic and exposure can take place through diet, environmental exposure, or accidents.  They negatively affect humans, plant and animal species and natural ecosystems both in close proximity and at significant distances away from the original source of discharge. 

Pesticides

Poor land management practices and the lost of agricultural lands to other economic activities have led to increased pesticide usage. It is predicted that 90% of the pesticides used in the Wider Caribbean Region do not meet their intended target and a high proportion enters the marine environment via surface and drainage, runoff, erosion, misapplication and atmospheric transport.

Radioactive Substances

Radioactive pollution is the result of released radionuclides in the environment. A radionuclide is an atom with an unstable nucleus which has excessive energy. Ocean currents can transport radionuclides over large distances. Radioactive substances can be in gas, liquid or solid form and may remain radioactive from a few hours to hundreds of thousands of years

Sanitation

Sanitation is the hygienic means of preventing human contact from the hazards of wastes to promote health. Sanitation in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by insufficient access, particularly in rural areas, and in many cases by poor service quality, with possible impacts on public health.

Sea Turtles

The Wider Caribbean Region once supported populations of sea turtles that numbered in the millions. Today some of the largest breeding populations the world has ever known are virtually gone; for example, the green turtles of the Cayman Islands. Threats to sea turtle populations can accumulate over long periods of time, and can occur anywhere in the population’s range. Because sea turtles are highly migratory by habit, what appears as a decline in a local population may be a direct consequence of the activities of peoples many hundreds or thousands or kilometers away. Thus while local conservation is crucial, cooperative action is also called for at international levels.

Sediment Mobilization

Natural sediment mobilization is an important process in the development and maintenance of coastal habitats, including wetlands, lagoons, estuaries, sea-grass beds, coral reefs, mangroves, dunes and sand barriers. However, anthropogenic activities often change the processes of erosion and sedimentation as well as modifying the flow of rivers and the amount of sediments it can carry.

Sedimentation

The process of deposition of sediment from a state of suspension or solution in a fluid is called sedimentation. Natural sources of sediments transported to the sea include erosion of bedrock, soil and decomposition of plants and animals. Anthropogenic activities often change the processes of erosion and sedimentation as well as modifying the flow of rivers and the amount of sediments it can carry.

Sewage

Sewage is the part of wastewater that is contaminated with feces or urine, but is often used to mean any wastewater. Untreated sewage is regarded as one of the most widespread causes of degradation of the coastal environment in the Caribbean, and leads to significant numbers of infectious diseases linked to bathing and swimming in marine waters and to the consumption of seafood.  The high costs of building and maintaining traditional sewage treatment plants are frequently the reason for not treating sewage before its disposal.

Solid Wastes

The lack of land areas and resources available for the safe disposal of wastes, population growth, the growing tourism industry, and the increase in imports of polluting and hazardous substances combine to make pollution prevention and waste management a critical issue in most Caribbean States. People generate solid wastes such as food and kitchen wastes, paper, glass, metal and plastic containers and packaging, construction wastes (bricks, tiles, concrete, rebar, lumber, sheeting, etc.), clothing, and hazardous wastes (medications, batteries, paints, chemicals, etc), which if not handled appropriately (recycled or disposed of properly) have the potential to become litter.

Sustainable Tourism

Tourism is the Caribbean's most important economic sector. One in six Caribbean workers is employed directly in tourism. Tourism, including supporting and related services, contributes an estimated one-hundred and five billion dollars to the Caribbean economy annually. As the tourism sector makes the greatest use of coastal and marine resources, not only the benefits but also the adverse impacts of tourism affect the entire economy. CEP seeks to improve environmental quality and coastal and marine natural resource protection in the Wider Caribbean by promoting the use of environmentally sound practices by the tourism industry.

Turtles (Sea or Marine)

The Wider Caribbean Region once supported populations of sea turtles that numbered in the millions. Today some of the largest breeding populations the world has ever known are virtually gone; for example, the green turtles of the Cayman Islands. Threats to sea turtle populations can accumulate over long periods of time, and can occur anywhere in the population’s range. Because sea turtles are highly migratory by habit, what appears as a decline in a local population may be a direct consequence of the activities of peoples many hundreds or thousands or kilometers away. Thus while local conservation is crucial, cooperative action is also called for at international levels.

Waste Management

The lack of land areas and resources available for the safe disposal of wastes, population growth, the growing tourism industry, and the increase in imports of polluting and hazardous substances combine to make pollution prevention and waste management a critical issue in most Caribbean States. People generate solid wastes such as food and kitchen wastes, paper, glass, metal and plastic containers and packaging, construction wastes (bricks, tiles, concrete, rebar, lumber, sheeting, etc.), clothing, and hazardous wastes (medications, batteries, paints, chemicals, etc), which if not handled appropriately (recycled or disposed of properly) have the potential to become litter.

Wastewater

Wastewater is any water that has been adversely affected in quality by anthropogenic influence and comprises liquid waste discharged by domestic residences, commercial properties, industry, and/or agriculture and can encompass a wide range of potential contaminants and concentrations. The identification of untreated domestic wastewater as the number one point source of contamination to the marine environment of the wider Caribbean was a major factor leading to the development of the Protocol on the Control of Land Based Sources of Marine Pollution (LBS Protocol) of the Cartagena Convention.

Wetlands

Wetlands are areas of land subject to flooding and dominated by hydrophytic (adapted to life in water or water-logged soils) vegetation. The inundation may be tidal, seasonal or more permanent, and may be saline, brackish or freshwater. Swamps are wetlands consisting of trees; wetlands with herbaceous plants (reeds and grasses) are referred to as marshes.

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