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The humanization of the Caribbean Sea—Past and Future


I will be writing a series of blog posts over the next few months discussing the long-standing and complex relationship between humans and the marine environment of the Caribbean Sea.

My story will begin more than 7,000 years ago, when humans first began colonizing the islands of the Caribbean archipelago, and will extend into the future to 2050 and beyond. I hope to generate some new perspectives on how humans have modified the Caribbean Sea and contribute to a broader reassessment about the past, present and future states of one of the most important seas on the planet.  

The Overarching Theme

The Caribbean Sea provides an exemplar case study of how humans have got things wrong when it comes to interacting with our oceans and seas, but how we can also make things right. I will argue that just as we had the power to radically modify and damage the Caribbean Sea, we also have the power to reimagine its future and restore species abundance, rebuild its ecosystems, and create an ecologically productive, resilient, and much more beautiful tropical marine environment than the one we have at present.  And I believe we can do this within the constraints of a growing human population, ongoing climate change, and a globally humanized environment.

Key Concepts

Some of the ideas I’ll be exploring include:

  • Humans have been interacting with, exploiting, and shaping the marine ecosystems of the Caribbean Sea for millennia.  This relationship extends back into prehistory and is more complex and profound than we realize.
  • We have forgotten how incredibly beautiful and bountiful the Caribbean Sea once was when its human footprint was still reasonably light.
  • Our understanding of what is ‘natural’ in the Caribbean Sea has shifted hugely across human generations and, lately, within a single generation.  This stems from the ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ where, in the absence of information about the past, we readily ‘naturalize’ the current state of the environment.  An appreciation of historic baselines for the Caribbean Sea will help us set appropriately ambitious, but realistic, restoration goals.
  • Recreating the past is not an option.  The notion of striving to restore the Caribbean Sea (or any part of the Global Ocean for that matter) to a ‘pristine’ state, or as some commentators opine, to its ‘former glory’, is unrealistic.  We need to decide what defines ‘glory’ or ‘naturalness’ in today’s world. 
  • Our restoration vision for the Caribbean Sea will need to accommodate the resource demands of a growing population and the realities of ongoing climate change.  Within these constraints, however, we must strive to attain ambitious benchmarks for the restoration of habitat, bioabundance (including the return of large populations of big animals); sustainably productive fisheries; reduction in levels of pollution (including nutrients and plastics); and the degree of ocean industrialization. The overall goal must be to create a well-managed ‘healthy’ sea that is bioabundant and diverse, ecologically intact, productive, resilient, and beautiful.
  • We must reassess and redefine the language we use in reference to ‘pristine’ and ‘natural’ environments in the oceans.  Human activities have been shaping marine environments, including the Caribbean Sea ecosystems, for millennia and now have a profound global effect on the oceans.  No place in the oceans is ‘pristine’ in the sense of being ‘unspoiled’ or ‘unpolluted’, or has been for a long time.  We cannot rewind the ecological clock anywhere on the planet. Ocean conservation efforts should thus not be about returning a seascape to a particular state or point of time in the past.  It should be about restoring ecosystems to an agreed acceptable level of ‘naturalness’ in terms of biodiversity, bioabundance, complexity, resilience, ecosystem services and beauty.  An understanding of past ‘pristine’ (i.e., pre-human) ecosystems and the historical effects of human activities on these ecosystems will help us establish acceptable and suitably ambitious restoration baselines on a future planet with more than 9 billion, hopefully thriving, humans.
  • We must implement an ambitious plan of restoration for the Caribbean Sea. The time has come to use our intellect and ingenuity to undo some of the damage we have caused and to shape an agreed and acceptable future for it. 
Tom Goreau and Komang Astari examine a new Biorock artificial reef installation. Credit: Matthew Oldfield
  • The future of the Caribbean Sea will be more radical than we currently imagine.  Its restoration will be underpinned by innovative and revolutionary technologies and interventions.  The sea will be monitored intensively by autonomous vehicles and satellites; genomics, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and data analytics will play major roles in its restoration and its ongoing management and adaptation to climate change.  We must be prepared and accepting of initiatives such as the creation of genetically engineered corals and mariculture species; the construction of large-scale coast-protecting artificial reefs to replace coral reefs lost to climate change; the development and release of pollution-eating microbes; the management of invasive species with gene drives; the widespread reintroduction of keystone species that are currently ecologically extinct; and, ultimately, the rewilding of extinct species.
The now extinct Caribbean monk seal Monachus tropicalis as depicted by Henry W. Elliott in 1884. Source

I look forward to exploring these and other ideas with you over the next few months!