Protecting Cuba's Abundant Coral Reefs

Two of the authors, Doug Rader and Dan Whittle with a goliath grouper.

*Re-posted with permission from Sailors for the Sea

This month's ocean watch essay comes to us from theEnvironmental Defense Fund(EDF), and was written by:Dan Whittle the senior attorney at Environmental Defense Fund and director of its Cuba ProgramDoug Rader, PhD, EDF's Chief Oceans Scientist, and Violet Dixon the Marketing Communications Associate for EDF's Oceans program. All images by Noel Lopez Fernandez.

In the waters off the Southeast coast of Cuba there's a near-pristine coral reef reserve called Jardines de la Reina, or the Gardens of the Queen. In this national park, groupers, snappers and many other reef fish flourish, along with several species of sharks. Although many of the world's best-known reefs face destruction in the face of global warming and other threats, large portions of the Gardens of the Queen remain remarkably healthy. Relative isolation from human influence helps make Cuba's coral reefs unique. Protecting these ecosystems — and species that rely on them — requires careful collaboration and cooperation among managers, scientists, fishermen and local fishing communities. Well-designed marine protected areas (MPAs), combined with innovative fisheries management, are the foundation for both sustainable commercial and recreational fisheries and a thriving eco-tourism sector.The abundance of big predators, like these Caribbean reef sharks, is a sure sign of an ecosystem in balance. The Gardens has six to eight times as many sharks as elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Seeing under the sea
Healthy coral reefs, mangrove swamps and seagrass beds support thriving fish populations, which in turn support local fishing communities and attract ocean enthusiasts. Scuba divers come from around the world, for example, to witness the myriad of sea animals and breathtaking underwater ecosystems in the Gardens of the Queen.

On these dives, they encounter numerous species of shark including Caribbean reef sharks, silky sharks, nurse sharks and occasional lemon and blacktip sharks.  Depending on the season and other factors, visitors also occasionally encounter whale sharks, the largest known fish species.

Swimming with Goliath
Large groupers — including the true behemoths, goliath groupers — are common. They can be the size of a small car! While goliath groupers are making a comeback in some places in Florida, they are mostly juveniles, with mature individuals appearing less frequently.   In the Gardens of the Queen, other groupers — black, Nassau, yellowmouth, yellowfin and tiger — are abundant at diving depths, along with a full array of snappers, many of which are fished out, or nearly so, in  other Caribbean locales.

Smaller species are present in great diversity and abundance as well, such as parrotfishes and other herbivores, the sanitation engineers of the reef. EDF divers recorded totals of 124 and 127 fish species in the park during short trips in 2010 and 2011, respectively, without any night diving or specialty habitat diving that would have expanded the numbers dramatically.

 A school of blue tang probe for food among magnificent pillar coral.Shared resources, important partnerships
While Cuba and the United States are distant politically, only the narrow Florida Straits separate the countries and, in any case, marine species do not abide by political boundaries or physical lines in the ocean. Migratory species such as sharks and turtles swim in these waters and beyond. Therefore, it makes sense for Cuba and the United States to collaborate on marine conservation and fisheries management.

Environmental Defense Fund has worked collaboratively for 12 years with scientists, managers, environmentalists and others to develop new approaches to protect marine biodiversity in Cuba and in the shared waters of the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.  Our successful partnerships are a foundation for broader dialogue and cooperation on environmental and natural resource matters.

Cubans realize that the long-term value of maintaining healthy coral reefs is higher than the short-term profits that may come from tourism development, unless tourism is carefully balanced with conservation. Officials are preparing plans to expand recreational fishing, boating and diving opportunities in ways that respect the fragile coral reefs and other coastal and marine ecosystems.

Creating marine parks
The Cuban National Center for Protected Areas has set an ambitious target of designating 25% of their coastal waters in MPAs. Currently, between 10 and 15% are already officially approved as MPAs, including the Gardens of the Queen. Setting aside critical habitat for turtles, sharks, groupers and innumerable other species is only the first step. Because coral reef animals are dependent on near-shore mangrove swamps and seagrass beds as nurseries, protecting all kinds of shallow-water habitats help sustain coral reefs offshore. The combination of protected areas and sound fishery management that motivates fishermen to help protect the parks and fish populations is critical.A treasure trove, including a giant anemone, great star coral, sea rods and sea fans.

MPAs alone are an important conservation tool, but experience in other parts of the world shows that they are most effective when combined with other fishery management tools, such as community-based fishery cooperatives or territorial user rights for fishing (TURFs). Together, they give fishermen a strong incentive to rebuild and sustain fish stocks.  Many MPAs produce a "spillover effect" in which fish reproduce and replenish their numbers not only within the no-take zone, but in adjacent waters as well. This enhanced spawning can help repopulate waters farther afield.

Taking care of fishermen, too
Sometimes, commercial fishermen and fishing communities near marine parks are displaced when no- fishing zones are put in place.  In the case of the Gardens of the Queen, most fishermen and local residents support tighter restrictions on fishing for several reasons. First, the park provides well-paying jobs in remote coastal areas where employment opportunities are scarce.  Second, Cuban scientists have demonstrated that the no-take reserves within the park have increased populations of reef fish that fishermen can target outside of park boundaries.  A greater investment in science within the park has resulted in improved fisheries management in recent years.  (This is an ongoing process and managers are still considering new ways to reign in overfishing in some areas).

P.S. – the Hemingway connection
EDF has an Agreement of Friendship with the Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba, which further solidifies our commitment to "join forces to preserve biodiversity of sea waters and coast in the Mexican Gulf and the Caribbean."  Although the agreement is informal, it sets a positive tone for collaborative work between the United States and Cuba to conduct marine research and reduce overfishing.  Bridging cultural and political differences is not new for EDF.  Since 1967, we have forged alliances with sometimes unlikely partners to find new solutions that can benefit both the environment and the economy.

We are honored to have worked with Cuban environmental and fishery officials, scientists and managers for more than 10 years to help them establish Marine Protected Areas and co-management systems that will protect vital coral reef ecosystems for generations to come. For more information, contact Dan Whittle or Doug Rader.

What can you do?

  • Make a donation to EDF's Cuba Program to support continued scientific and environmental collaboration.
  • Take a virtual 10 day scuba tour through the eyes of our Senior Writer Rod Griffin.
  • Learn more about why it is critical to conserve Cuba's biodiversity.
  • Support ocean conservation by making a donation to Sailors for the Sea. Did you know, only 1% of environmental giving in the US goes to protect the ocean.
  • Planning a vacation? Make it sustainable, learn more from The Global Sustainable Tourism Council.
  • Eat sustainable seafood, no matter where you live it will help the ocean.

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