Caribbean Sea

May 13, 2013, 8:00 pm
Content Cover Image

Bocas coast of Panama in the western Caribbean. @ C. Michael Hogan

The Caribbean Sea is a saline water body of approximately 2,750,000 square kilometers, which is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean.

This tropical sea is delimited by The Gulf of Mexico and the Greater Antilles to the north; Central America and Mexico at the west; the Lesser Antilles at the east; and the South American countries of Colombia and Venezuela at the south.

caption Map of Caribbean Sea. Source: Kmusser/Wikipedia

Approximately 52,000 square kilometers of the Caribbean Sea are coral reefs, representing roughly nine percent of the world's total reef extent . These reefs are threatened by intensive visitation by tourists, water pollution and overfishing. Additionally, there are significant features of biodiversity in the marine fishes, avafauna, marine mammals, marine invertebrates and rimming mangrove systems.

Basin Geology

The sole active plate margin in the North Atlantic Ocean basin is the Caribbean Plate margin. Tectonic effects are manifested in ongoing seismic activity as well as extreme bathymetry of the Puerto Rico Trench. The Cayman Trench/Trough, situated in the western Caribbean is an active spreading center, and is the plate boundary between the Caribbean Plate and the North American Plate; furthermore this trench is the deepest part of the basin, attaining a depth of over 7600 meters. The north coast of Puerto Rico is bounded by the strike-slip motion along the Puerto Rico Trench; moreover the south coast of Puerto Rico is defined by compression in the Muertos Trench.

caption Source: Demis

Marine Ecology and Productivity

See main article: Caribbean Sea Large Marine Ecosystem

The Caribbean Sea Large Marine Ecosystem (LME) is considered a Class III, low (<150 gC/m2-yr) productivity ecosystem, although upwelling along the northern coast of Venezuela contributes to relatively high productivity in that area. Other factors contributing to the greater productivity of South America’s northern coast are the nutrient input from rivers and estuaries. The remaining area of the LME is mostly comprised of clear, nutrient-poor waters (Richards and Bohnsack, 1990).

A key component of the shallow water ecosystem are the coral reefs of the Caribbean Sea (Milliman, 1976; Glynn, 1976). Living corals are made mostly by calcium-secreting corals and thrive in clear, oceanic, shallow, low-nutrient waters, with plenty of sunlight and warm temperatures. Coral growth can be limited by high turbidity, exposure to freshwater or air, extreme temperatures, water pollution, and excess nutrients. (See Reefs at risk in the Caribbean, Patterns of Caribbean coral loss, Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, Belize)

There is some background information available on this area thanks to a multidisciplinary study called the Cooperative Investigations in the Caribbean Sea and Adjacent Areas (CICAR), which was completed during the 1970’s (Richards and Bohnsack, 1990). There is still a need for better understanding of the role of physical and biological offshore processes.

See also: Biological diversity in the Caribbean Islands, Common coral reef fishes of the Caribbean, Caribbean monk seal


The Caribbean Basin produces an estimated annual catch of approximately 500,000 metric tons, with Venezuela's harvest producing over half of the total; Venezuela has a high catch due to intensive harvesting, high fishery productivity, coastal shelf extent and the presence of the prized yellowfin tuna and swordfish Since most of the fishing is artisanal, it is likely that a substantial proportion of the catch is unreported. Chief fishing techniques include traps and handlines, with some netting and spear fishing. Over 170 species are caught for commercial purposes. The principal species taken are spiny lobster, Panulirus argus, coralline reef fishes and conch. There is concern over the long-term sustainability of spiny lobster due an increase in fishing effort. Coralline reef fish are a major fishery, centered in the Caribbean range as far as southern Florida and the Bahamas. The conch fishery has collapsed in many Caribbean areas and it is unlikely this catch can be sustained. Several species of sea turtles are threatened or endangered in the Caribbean as a result of overexploitation

Terrestrial Ecosystems

See example main articles:

The Caribbean Basin has a diverse set of terrestrial ecoregions that border the shores of the North and Central American mainland as well as the Caribbean Islands. These ecoregions include mangroves, xeric scrub forests, moist forests and cactus scrub. Unfortunately many of the most biologically diverse habitats have been largely destroyed by overpopulation as well as development for industry and tourism; particularly hard hit are the Cayman Islands, Bahamas, Cuba and Haiti.

The Caribbean Basin contains a number of different mangrove swamps ecoregions, some of which contain an extensive coral reef system that protects the mangroves by moderating ocean wave action; in turn the mangroves trap sediment and promote water clarity than enhance coral reef development. Extensive submerged areas of these ecoregions are considered seagrass meadows, a highly biodiverse marine ecosystem that has high primary productivity as well as considerable species richness In the shallower waters; in many cases these meadows are home to manatee along with numerous corals, sponges, pipefishes and baracuda. Some of the deeper coastal waters are habitat for dolphins, most notably at Dolphin Bay, somewhat south of Bastimentos Island, off of the coast of Panama.

Moist forest constitute several of the ecoregions within the Caribbean Basin; moreover, this ecoregion assumes a disproportionate value of endemism for its areal extent. The forests of this ecoregion, including the forested cores and their peripheral edges, have historically provided the downslope communities with a wide variety of useful goods and services such as building materials, fuelwood, natural medicines, wild fruits, and a habitat for game species and other wildlife. The most important service provided by the forests is as a reliable source of domestic water for each component island. Except for the more remote, inaccessible areas characterized by high relief, many of the forests on different islands in this ecoregion suffer from similar human-related pressures, i.e. agricultural encroachment, hunting, and limited enforcement of wildlife and environmental legislation.


See: Energy profile of Caribbean

Caribbean Countries

  1. Anguilla
  2. Antigua and Barbuda
  3. Aruba
  4. Bahamas
  5. Barbados
  6. Bermuda
  7. British Virgin Islands
  8. Cayman Islands
  9. Cuba
  10. Dominica
  11. Dominican Republic
  12. Grenada
  13. Guadeloupe
  14. Haiti
  15. Jamaica
  16. Martinique
  17. Montserrat
  18. Netherlands Antilles
  19. Puerto Rico
  20. Saint Kitts and Nevis
  21. Saint Lucia
  22. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  23. Trinidad and Tobago
  24. Turks and Caicos Islands
  25. United States Virgin Islands


  • James V.Gardner, Michael E.Field and David C.Twichell. 1996. Geology of the United States' seafloor: the view from GLORIA. Cambridge University Press. 364 pages
  • P.N.Glynn. 1976. Aspects of the Ecology of Coral Reefs in the Western Atlantic Region, in Biology and Geology of Coral Reefs, pp. 271-324.
  • J.D.Milliman. 1976. Caribbean Coral Reefs, in O.A. Jones and R. Endean (eds.), Biology and Geology of Coral Reefs, vol. 1, pp. 1-5 ISBN: 0123896010.
  • C.M.Roberts, J.A.Bohnsack, Fiona Gell, Julie P. Hawkins, Renata Goodridge, 2001. Effects of marine reserves on adjacent fisheries. Science. Vol. 294, pgs. 1920-1923.
  • William J.Richards and James A.Bohnsack. 1990. The Caribbean Sea: A Large Marine Ecosystem in Crisis, in Kenneth Sherman, et al. (eds.), Large Marine Ecosystems: Patterns, Processes and Yields (Washington, D.C. American Association for the Advancement of Science




Hogan, C. (2013). Caribbean Sea. Retrieved from


To add a comment, please Log In.