Political and business leaders are gathering on a billionaire's private island Friday to back a program aimed at expanding protection for the Caribbean's imperiled coasts and waters.
The "Caribbean Challenge" calls for special protected zones along at least 20 percent of the region's coasts by 2020 in hopes of protecting its biodiversity and its crucial tourism market. The Caribbean's scattered islands that has 10 percent of the world's coral reefs and some 1,400 species of fish and marine mammals.
Richard Branson, the adventuring CEO and founder of the Virgin Group of companies is co-hosting the meeting at Necker Island, his home in the British Virgin Islands, where he has developed an ultra-exclusive eco-resort that showcases renewable energy technology and reintroduced flamingoes.
"It's just so important to get every single Caribbean country 100 percent behind protecting the wonderful sea life and the wonderful reefs and mangroves, and therefore the species that occupy our oceans," Branson said in a phone interview from the island.
British Virgin Islands Premier Orlando Smith and Grenada Prime Minister Keith Mitchell are also co-hosting the gathering of delegations from nine Caribbean countries, chiefs of resort companies and cruise lines, representatives of the World Bank, United Nations and other international bodies, private foundations and environmental groups.
One of the key promoters is the Virginia-based Nature Conservancy, which says that the Caribbean Challenge, begun in 2008, is one of the world's most ambitious conservation initiatives.
"The Caribbean is truly paradise under threat, and today's focus is a critical step toward a brighter future," Glenn Prickett, chief external affairs officer with the Nature Conservancy, said in an email.
If the Caribbean, the world's most tourism dependent region, takes strong steps now to protect its natural resources, conservationists say it will be in a far stronger position to protect its small economies and cope with future threats from climate change and ocean acidification due to greenhouse gases.
The challenges are many in the ecologically stressed Caribbean, which covers some 10,000 square kilometers (3,860 square miles). Once brilliant coral reefs have lost their luster due to warming waters and disease. Live coral cover of existing reefs has plummeted to an average of just 8 percent from 50 percent in the 1970s, the International Union for Conservation of Nature says. Three-fourths of the reefs are considered threatened, also degraded by overfishing, runoff pollution and coastal development.
"In the past, the Caribbean has not been great at protecting the eagle rays and the sharks and the reef fish and so on," Branson said.
Some of the Caribbean Challenge's participating countries - Bahamas, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and the British Virgin Islands - have already taken steps to reach their conservation targets.
The Dominican Republic has actually exceeded its 20 percent goal by creating more than 30 new protected areas in recent years. The Bahamas established the largest marine protected area in the region by expanding a national park in Andros from 185,000 acres to 1.28 million acres. Jamaica has set up several "no-take" fishing sanctuaries.
But there are questions about how deep the political will really is in a region with heavily indebted governments. Political leaders have long spoken about the need for protecting coasts, developing alternative energy sources and diversifying tourism-dependent economies but little has been accomplished. One country, Antigua & Barbuda, recently dropped out of the initiative for reasons that are not clear.
Branson said strong conservation efforts would pay off for years to come for a region where 70 percent of the people live in coastal settlements and a $20 billion tourism industry provides more than 2 million jobs.
"Many, many people who come to the Caribbean come because they want to enjoy the reef, they want to see the sea life on the reef," Branson said. "And therefore they want to see it better protected."