Dr. Fabián Pina Amargós is a first-rate marine scientist from Cuba, who has worked closely with EDF’s Oceans program for many years. Fabián has been a scientist with Cuba’s Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research for twenty years and was recently named director of the center.
Welcome back for Part 2 of our intern Shannon Switzer’s interview with Dr. Fabián Pina Amargós, as they discuss the marine scientist’s opinion on the effectiveness of MPA’s and ecotourism as conservation tools as well as his hopes for Cuba as a nation. Read the first part of the interview here.
SLS: Some people are skeptical that MPAs are effective in sustaining fisheries while protecting marine life. What have your studies shown you about the effectiveness of MPAs?
FPA: I think that of course, the controversial part is because nature is very variable. Sometimes you can have the results or the positive impacts of a management tool in a shorter time and sometimes it takes longer, which is dependent, for example, on the species you are trying to recover. So a species that has a short life cycle would have an impact of a no-take area faster, but if we are thinking tarpon, or goliath grouper or other species that live longer, you need to wait a longer time [to see the results].
But generally speaking, and especially where I am dealing in the Gardens, which is relevant for Cuba but also for other tropical places with similar ecosystems, we measured the results of the effect of the marine reserve. We found that after ten years of the declaration [of the MPA] the number of fish increased, the size of the fish are bigger and they are more abundant inside of the reserve. Also, they are not shy and are friendlier and allow you to get closer, so you can enjoy them more when you dive. But also, because the number has increased dramatically, we carried out an experiment and tested the spill-over effect, which is when the number of fish increases until it’s full inside, and they need to move outside. It’s not a random movement, it’s basically a density-dependent kind of movement, cause it’s crowded inside the protected area, and then they just spill over the boundaries.
Then the fishery grounds benefit from that, and you can fish outside. We’ve proved that [with our research], but now fishermen are saying most of the fish they are catching now are coming from the reserve. So now the reserves are gaining support by, not all of the fishermen, but many of them. At the beginning the vast majority of them were opposed to the reserve, and it’s a normal reaction of human behavior—you are preventing me from using a fishing ground that I’ve been using forever and my father and my grandfather and my grand grandfather were fishing on—but they realize now that this is a good tool.
SLS: Along the same lines, part of MPA management often involves tourism based on recreational and sport fishing. Do you think these activities should continue to be allowed in protected areas, despite some studies saying that mishandling can sometimes lead to as high as a forty percent mortality rate?
FPA: I think so. What’s happening typically is the mortality is a lot lower for recreational fishers, especially if you target tropical places with shallow water areas called flats, like we have in Cuba. These are good fora kind of fly fishing that targets bonefish, tarpon, permit and snook. Basically, you use a very small hook and you need to tease the fish that the thing close to his mouth is real bait—like a real shrimp or a crab or small fish—and then as soon as they bite, you need to hook them, because the fish are not stupid. They feel that it’s something sharp, there is no meat in that, and they just spit that out of their mouth. So you need to hook them almost immediately, and if you hook it in the mouth and handle it properly—keep the fish in the water in a horizontal position while unhooking and taking pictures with it—you can get as close as zero percent mortality.
For sure the mortality is less than if you use a net and catch two tons of bonefish. It’s very easy to catch two tons of bonefish, because the medium sized ones gather in schools of several hundred individuals, so you can get 5 or 6 tons of bonefish in two minutes [with a net]. Probably you will need like a year or more for hooking a few hundred bonefish.
So I’d say it’s viable also because people are willing to pay a lot. Americans, Europeans, people from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, almost everywhere, South Africa, all those countries that visit the Gardens are good for catching and releasing bonefish. And they pay a lot of money, they pay air tickets, hotels everywhere on their way to the Gardens which benefit our economy and people, and also they tip the guides. The tips are very high, so that money is coming to the coastal communities and having a positive impact on families.
So yes, it is more profitable with less impact. We have tagged a bonefish and caught it again just two weeks later. So in two weeks they are happy to bite again, even with not only hooking them but also putting the tag in the back. So I think it’s viable, but of course it is dependent on the fishery.
All the time it is very important to inform people through the media that nature is very case by case, and there are not general recipes for everything. So even in tropical areas to temperate areas similar to one another, there’s differences that you must know about and take into account for managing the resources, and that’s why it’s important to do the research but also to inform people that every place is different and you need to know what is going on in every place to make the best decisions.
SLS: You mentioned that the money from tourism ends up in the hands of the locals and benefits the surrounding community. That is great to hear. Tell me more.
FPA: In Cuba we have been good at gathering the revenues of the country and splitting it quite evenly in the population. So even in the situation of Cuba with limited resources and the embargo and general world situation, we keep the health care, social security and education in very high level related to other countries with similar or even higher income. We have been very good with that.
So even the money that is generated by tourism is well-used in the country, so in general it benefits the entire country, but especially this kind of tourism that involves people from the coastal communities. The issue is that typically the people from the coastal communities, I think almost everywhere, but especially in developing countries, they are not highly educated people, so sometimes it’s hard for them to get the positions like in a hotel kind of environment. But these guys are good for marine things- diving and fly fishing- it’s impossible for any one of us to compete with these guys on marine related activities.
And then through the tips is another way these coastal communities benefit. If you have ten people working in a tourist operation it can have a big impact on the community, because it’s like everybody is a relative and they benefit from the tips.
Another important thing is that most of them were fishermen in the area that have changed their livelihood and are now protecting the resources, because they depend on them. So they won’t allow a fishing boat to come in the marine reserve for catching the bonefish, because the bonefish are the fish they need to have alive for the tourist activities. They are now part of the enforcement of the marine reserve and the national park and so on. So it’s a model—the Gardens of the Queen is a place where that situation is working, so it’s a model that we can use in other places. And this kind of operation is also spreading in the southwest part of Cuba, like the Island of the Youth and Cayo Largo. It’s spreading to other parts on the north coast of Cuba also, like Cayo Cruz. The model is moving around and being adopted.
SLS: Do you think US-Cuba relations are improving?
FPA: Ten years ago it was very hard to have a Cuban participate in an environmental conference in the US and now it’s a lot easier. I must say that the embargo is a big limitation for the relations between the countries, and that’s the decision of the US side. Cuba, even in the United Nations, has expressed our willingness to discuss anything with US, including environmental related issues. And so far there is not a governmental response from the US, but the US NGOs and other institutions I mentioned earlier, have been working on having relations with Cuban institutions. There is change, I think in some ways the situation has improved, but we have room for more.
SLS: Moving forward, what is your biggest hope for Cuba in general and specifically for sustaining healthy marine life?
FPA: I have been able to visit at least a few places in the Caribbean and swim there where I was expecting to see more fish, and I was amazed that the number of fish was so low. And in Cuba outside the big cities, almost everywhere I have seen more fish and lobster and crabs and coral reef than most of the countries I have visited in the Caribbean.
So for me one goal would be at least keep the same status. If we can improve it that’s better, but at least keeping that and using that in a sustainable way—we can get a better life as human beings by taking care of the nature and the resources that we have. It’s not a matter of just protecting like in a glass container—no. It’s using nature in a responsible way that can be preserved but also give Cubans a better life.
I think that it’s doable. I mean it’s a matter of gathering the information that is critical for proposing recommendations for sustainable use of the resources. Working in Cuba, changing the mind of the people about the importance of protecting, not for pure protection, but for a better life. We need to work with our neighbors in the larger marine ecosystem, which is the wider Caribbean: the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and all the small islands, Central America, Bahamas, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Haiti, US, Cuba, Mexico. We are so connected that we need to work together on many things for the better of our nations, but also every country must do things for keeping the environment in good shape to benefit its people.
You can see more of Fabián’s work online at www.EDF.org/oceans/cuba