Lake Maracaibo: Lake, Bay, or Lagoon?

Lake Maracaibo.

Lake Maracaibo is one of the largest natural lakes in South America covering an area of 5,100 square miles. It lies in Maracaibo Basin in the northwestern part of Venezuela. It is also one of the largest brackish lakes and serves as the Caribbean Sea’s inlet. It is a lake as opposed to being a lagoon or a bay. The Tablazo strait connects the Gulf of Venezuela to Maracaibo lake. The strait is about 3.4 miles wide on the northern part and approximately 43 miles long. Several rivers feed the lake, and the largest river flowing into the lake is Catatumbo. According to geological evidence, the lake at one time the largest in South America, and is among the most ancient lakes in the world believed to have been formed sometime between 20 million and 36 million years ago.

History Of The Lake

Guajiros are the earliest known people to settle around the lake, and they are still living around the lake to this day, although the majority of them were resettled in the region close to the border with Colombia. Alonso de Ojeda was the first European to notice the bay on August 24th, 1499 when he was on an expedition together with Vespucci. It is alleged that when Ojeda’s expedition entered the lake, they found the indigenous natives who had built huts on stilts over the water. It is said that the houses on stilts reminded them of the city of Venice or Venecia in Spanish, or Venezia in Italian, and therefore he gave the name Venezuela to the area, which in Spanish language means “the Little Venice.” It is also speculated that the term “-uela” was added to the name as a diminutive expression, and other people have indicated that the word “-uela” could have been used as a pejorative term.

The Economic Significance Of The Lake

The lake serves as a major shipping route for ports of Cabimas and Maracaibo. Besides, the region of Maracaibo Basin has huge deposits of crude oil, and therefore the lake is one of the profit centers in Venezuela. The Maracaibo is home to approximately a quarter of the population of Venezuela. Lake Maracaibo is among the richest oil-producing regions in the world. The first oil well was drilled in the region in 1917, and the most productive areas now include a 65-mile strip which runs along the Lakes’ Eastern shore and extends 20 miles into the Lake. There are thousands of derricks which protrude out of the lake, and several others are found along the shore. Several pipelines run under the water, and they are used to transport oil to the storage tanks. The supplies from the lake basin account for 2/3rds of the total petroleum produced in Venezuela. The lake is also a major fishing ground and support about 20,000 fishers.

Challenges Facing Lake Maracaibo

In the recent past, the lake has experienced a huge infestation of duckweed, and as of 2004, about 18% of the lake’s surface had been covered with duckweed. Currently, there is no biological or chemical method to control duckweed. The government of Venezuela is spending an average of $2 million every month trying to eradicate the weed and similarly Petroleos de Venezuela S.A, the state-owned oil company has set aside more than $750 million for cleaning up the lake. Current efforts can hardly manage to control duckweed, which can double in size after every 48 hours. Removal of the weed from the lake has become very difficult, particularly in the central part of the Lake and could require special equipment to be used. The only way to get rid of the weed is to pull it out of the lake physically.


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