Research finds that in the Caribbean, overseas territories are more vulnerable to coral bleaching than independent countries

Coral bleaching. Image: Ken Clifton

According to a new study, independent Caribbean island countries tend to be less vulnerable to coral bleaching than overseas territories:

“We were surprised to find that independent islands have lower social-ecological vulnerability than territories…. Territories — such as the Dutch islands of Sint Maarten and Saba — tend to be left out of global assessments of climate change vulnerability, but our results suggest that they need to invest in improving their ability to adapt to environmental changes.”

This study, led by Katherine Siegel, a graduate researcher at the University of California Berkeley, was published recently in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. The full research article is available online: “Sovereign states in the Caribbean have lower social-ecological vulnerability to coral bleaching than overseas territories”. Here’s an extract from the abstract:

We assess variation in social-ecological vulnerability to climate change-induced coral bleaching, specifically for reef-based fisheries and tourism, of islands throughout the insular Caribbean, thus providing the first region-wide quantitative analysis of island-scale social-ecological vulnerability to coral bleaching. We show that different components of vulnerability have distinct spatial patterns and that variability in overall vulnerability is driven more by socio-economic than ecological components. Importantly, we find that sovereign islands are less vulnerable on average than overseas territories and that the presence of fisheries management regulations is a significant predictor of adaptive capacity and socio-economic sensitivity, with important implications for island-level governance and policies to reduce climate vulnerability.

Unlike previous assessments that focused on ecological vulnerability, this recent research examined both ecological and socio-economic aspects of vulnerability across the islands of the Caribbean. The findings suggest that independent Caribbean island countries tend to be more ecologically vulnerable to coral bleaching than overseas territories; however, overseas territories generally tend to experience higher overall socio-ecological vulnerability.

Why is this? Researchers posit that, compared to independent Caribbean island states, overseas territories in the Caribbean tend to have less diverse economies that are more dependent on reef-based tourism:

[W]e found that islands that are overseas territories had greater socio-economic sensitivity to coral bleaching, resulting from higher economic dependence on reef-based tourism and a greater contribution of locally landed fish to domestic seafood consumption. The higher dependence on tourism may reflect development priorities of overseas governments and the propensity of tourists to visit their country’s territories. …[T]he greater economic reliance on reef-based tourism in territories implies less diverse economies and greater economic losses if climate change-related coral bleaching, sea-level rise, and increased storm intensity reduce tourism.

The data was inconclusive as to whether the territories of different countries showed different patterns in vulnerability—i.e. it wasn’t possible to say whether French departments in the Caribbean tend to be more or less vulnerable than UK overseas territories—but did suggest “that Dutch territories appear to have lower socio-economic adaptive capacity than the other territories”.

Overall the three most vulnerable Caribbean islands/countries were found to be Saba, St. Barts, and Haiti (Haiti was a notable exception to the overall pattern of results). The Dominican Republic, Haiti’s neighbour, was assessed as the least socio-ecologically vulnerable country in the region, followed by Cuba and Jamaica.

There is a lot of information to parse in this research; I strongly suggest taking a look at the research article and the supporting supplementary material.

The researchers recommend that all Caribbean islands, regardless of whether they are independent countries or overseas territories, should reduce their vulnerability to coral bleaching by reducing land-based sources of marine pollution and improving coastal and marine water quality.

[Image: Ken Clifton]

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