Author Archives: Dan Whittle

EDF Partner In Cuba Visits US for "Our Oceans" Conference (Part 2)

Fabian_Diving2

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. Read More »

Posted in Cuba, Marine Protection| Tagged , , , , , | 2 Responses, comments now closed

EDF Partner In Cuba Visits US for "Our Oceans" Conference (Part 1)

Introduction from Dan Whittle:

Fabian_Diving2Dr. 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.   

Three years ago, Dr. Pina became the first Cuban to receive the coveted Pew Marine Fellowship and has used that support to expand his study of the majestic goliath grouper. 

Over the past few years, EDF scientists have been with Dr. Pina and his team on a series of research expeditions in the Gulf of Ana Maria and the world-renowned Gardens of the Queen National Marine Park to assess the health of fish populations and of the coral reefs and other marine habitats they depend upon.

Because of Dr. Pina’s groundbreaking work, and his long history of collaborating with EDF and other marine conservation organizations in the U.S., Secretary of State John Kerry invited him to the history-making “Our Ocean” conference held earlier this week in D.C.

The two-day meeting of minds brought together a diverse group of attendees from around the world to discuss approaches for eliminating marine pollution and addressing ocean acidification, as well as strategies for building sustainable fisheries. Many commitments were made by heads of state to designate protected marine areas including our own President Obama, who called for the creation of the world’s largest ocean preserve, potentially expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to nine times its current size.

While in the U.S., Dr. Pina also visited us in EDF’s Raleigh, North Carolina office and spoke with our intern Shannon Switzer. They talked about growing up in Cuba, how he became interested in marine conservation and his biggest hopes for Cuba and its people. See their conversation Part 1 of their conversation below, and learn more about this prestigious Cuban scientist and his work.

  Read More »

Posted in Cuba| Comments closed

Twenty Years of Coastal Research and Conservation in Cuba

Mangroves in the Gardens of the Queen National Park provide important fish habitat.

Mangroves in the Gardens of the Queen National Park provide important fish habitat.

Congratulations to my friends at the Cuban Center for Coastal Ecosystem Research in Cayo Coco, Cuba.  On November 28, the Center celebrated its 2oth anniversary –20 years of conducting critical research on Cuba’s rich and diverse coastal ecosystems.  Last month, the Center’s founder Celso Pazos Alberdi, and director Adán Zuñiga Rios, invited me and several colleagues to visit the Center to get a first-hand look at what they do.

The Center, which is housed in the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment, provides much of the science that policy makers and managers use to develop environmental policies and programs for coastal areas.  Their work is also aimed at ensuring that tourism and other economic development in coastal areas is environmentally sustainable. That’s no small task.

With over 3,000 miles of coastline—and more than 4,000 islets and keys– Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and is unmatched in biodiversity.  Mangrove swamps, sea grass beds, and coral reefs provide breeding, nursery and feeding grounds for many commercial fish species and also for endangered migratory species like marine sea turtles, sharks and manatees.  Cuba’s coastal areas are also home to some of its most important economic sectors—tourism, fisheries, and energy development. Read More »

Posted in Uncategorized| Tagged , , , | 1 Response, comments now closed

EDF Finds Common Ground in Cuba

Dan Whittle with captain of The Felipe Poey research vessel.

Dan Whittle with captain of The Felipe Poey research vessel.

Sharks, sea turtles, birds, and fish know that the U.S., Mexico, and Cuba are all part of a huge, interconnected ocean ecosystem.  They routinely traverse the artificial boundaries that humans have created in order to go about their business.  Now, fishermen, scientists, conservationists and fishery managers have begun doing the same.  For the first time, they crossed those same boundaries in order to learn from each other on boats in Cuba's beautiful Gulf of Batabano and in meeting rooms on the remote Isle of Youth.

In April, EDF's Cuba Program teamed up with the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research,  Mexico's Communidad y Biodiversidad, and the Havana office of the World Wildlife Fund to pull off this unprecedented exchange.

Cuban tuna boat setting off to fish for live bait

Cuban tuna boat setting off to fish for live bait.

We spent the first four days in a “floating workshop” aboard a research vessel and commercial fishing boats–where we fished, dived, talked, and got to know each other.  The bonding experience on the boats made the traditional workshops on land (in a conference room full of PowerPoint presentations) much more productive.

The Cubans welcomed us with open arms and appreciated the chance to exchange ideas. Cuban lobster fishermen told us how to design fishing gear that is more effective and habitat-friendly.  We learned how Cuban “bonito” boats pursue black fin tuna without the use of sonar or other fish-finding technology.  Instead, Cuban fishermen scout the horizon for frigate birds and sea gulls that are following tuna and sharks; the fishermen then circle the schools of feeding fish, chum the water with live sardines, and drop in their lines.  Catching 20 lb tuna with the Cubans —using 10-foot bamboo rods—was thrilling and made us feel a bit like Hemingway. 

Our tri-national team on the floating workshop.

Our tri-national team on the floating workshop.

We also got a first-hand look at Cuba’s impressive efforts to expand its network of marine protected areas along the ecologically rich southern coast.  These marine and coastal parks are vital in protecting some of the region’s healthiest and most productive coral reefs, mangrove forests, and sea grass beds.  One Cuban scientist explained how a marine protected area in the Gardens of the Queen National Park (off the south central coast) has resulted in increased populations of fish outside its boundaries.

The Cuban fishermen we met with are eager to find new ways to manage and sustain marine fish stocks and secure a bright future for fishermen and fishing communities.  They were impressed with fishermen-led efforts in the U.S. and Mexico to rebuild fish populations and protect coral reefs.  They were keenly interested in the successful use of fishermen cooperatives and other fishery management approaches in Mexico, the U.S. and elsewhere.   Many follow-up actions are planned to build on the momentum built during this exchange.

Cuba, Mexico and the United States  are ecologically connected.  We share not only the Gulf of Mexico, but also the waters and marine life of the Caribbean and Atlantic Oceans.  Buoyed by the success of this exchange, we plan to hold future exchanges that will help the countries work together to protect common resources and to confront shared problems.

Posted in Cuba, Latin America & Caribbean, Marine Protection| Tagged , , | Comments closed

Isle of Youth: Exploring Cuba’s Marine Sanctuaries

Dan Whittle in Cuba near Isla de la Juventud with one of EDF's Cuban marine partners.

Dan Whittle in Cuba near Isla de la Juventud with one of EDF's Cuban marine partners.

The remote and sparsely populated Isla de la Juventud (“Isle of Youth”) sits off the southwestern coast of Cuba, the largest island in the Canarreos Archipelago.  Legend has it that pirates, including the infamous Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan, sought refuge in its hidden bays  between exploits in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Once known as Isla de Tesoros, it is said that the island inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write his novel, Treasure Island.

Last month I joined a group of Cuban and American scientists on a three day trip to the Isle of Youth to examine a new effort to protect and expand Cuba’s extensive network of marine sanctuaries.  On the southwestern part of the island—and not far from where the pirates hid – is Punta Frances, a national park and marine protected area that now provides refuge for endangered manatees, hawksbill sea turtles, and American crocodiles and many other forms of marine life.  Siguanea Bay, where we stayed, and the broader Canarreos – enclosing the Gulf of Batabano – are ecologically rich, boasting some of the healthiest and most intact coral reefs in the region.  The area is also economically important, home to highly productive lobster, shark and finfish fisheries. 

Two lobster boats in Coloma, one of Cuba’s most important fishing ports.”

Lobster boats in Coloma, one of Cuba’s most important fishing ports.

The highlight of the trip was sighting four manatees in the mangrove-lined channels in the park.  Scientists and fishermen in the area are now working together to track and protect these magnificent critters.  Scientists worked with fishermen on the island to end the harvest of sea turtles in Cuban waters and are now developing a joint initiative to protect them. 

These efforts are part of an impressive 5-year project launched by Cuban officials to protect and sustain marine and coastal ecosystems around the Isle of Youth and along most of Cuba’s southern coast.  This initiative, funded in large part by the Global Environment Facility, is designed to end overfishing, protect marine  life, and improve management of the extensive network of marine parks and sanctuaries. 

Next month, colleagues and I will return to the Isle of Youth for a workshop that EDF is holding with partners from Cuba, Mexico and the United States.  The workshop will bring together fishermen, scientists, resource managers, and conservationists to discuss innovative strategies to meet common goals of protected area management and fisheries management.

Stay tuned!

Posted in Cuba, Marine Protection| Tagged , , | Comments closed

Cuba: Preserving the Cradle of the Caribbean

Cayo Largo (“Key Largo”) is part of a chain of about 350 small islands and keys that together comprise the Canarreos Archipelago. The key is a critically important nesting site for endangered sea turtles, which depend upon its safe, isolated, and unlit beaches. Its healthy and abundant coral reefs, sea grass beds, and mangrove forests provide breeding, nursery and feeding grounds for many commercial fish species that populate the southern Gulf of Batabanó, Cuba’s most productive and economically fishing grounds. Anglers from around the world come to fish the flats for prized bonefish, tarpon and snook. Its shallow reefs, sandy beaches, and slow pace are also a draw — tourism is an important and growing industry in Cuba.

This spring a team from EDF went to Cayo Largo to get an on-the-ground look at efforts to protect the key’s rich marine life, coastal ecosystems and biodiversity amidst tourism development and other activities. Experience what we found there by watching this short video “Cuba: Preserving the Cradle of the Caribbean”

Like in so many areas in Cuba, Cayo Largo’s natural beauty and rich biodiversity are its biggest assets that, if well-protected, will provide a backbone for robust and sustainable economic growth in the years to come. EDF is working with Cuban scientists and environmental officials to identify ways to integrate coastal management with sustainable fishing and marine protected areas.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsNrwo6g5mE

Posted in Cuba| 1 Response, comments now closed

Cuba’s Marine Life and Coastal Communities at Risk from BP Oil Disaster

Surface Horitzonal Current - NOAA/National Weather Service May 23rd

Surface Horizontal Current - NOAA/National Weather Service May 23rd

This week, federal regulators increased the size of the Gulf fishery closure to 37% percent of federal waters.  As the disaster continues, concerns are spreading across international boundaries, including to Cuba where the U.S. closure already abuts 250 miles of that nation’s waters. 

Most at risk is the ecologically rich northwest coast of Cuba, home to coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove forests.  These ecosystems are breeding, nursery and feeding grounds for fish, sea turtles, sharks and manatees.  At the same time, these systems protect coastal communities from hurricanes and storm surges.  Like the U.S., this disaster threatens important economic activity and livelihoods from commercial fishing to eco-tourism.

EDF’s Cuba program is sharing information with Cuban officials, scientists, and conservationists, helping the country keep a watchful eye on the path of the oil.   Unfortunately, the political differences between the U.S. and Cuba means there are no official mechanisms to communicate and cooperate on the crisis. 

I recently spoke at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., calling on the Obama Administration to work with Cuba.  EDF also supports similar recommendations in a report from the Brookings Institution entitled, Coping with the Next Spill: Why U.S.-Cuba Environmental Cooperation is Critical. 

For half a century, a political gulf has divided our two countries.  Finding ways to collaborate to respond to the BP oil disaster is in our mutual interest—to help Cuba prepare and respond to the worst, and to develop a strong foundation for the future to protect our shared environment.  It is time for a pragmatic approach.

Never miss a post! Subscribe to EDFish via a email or a feed reader.

Posted in BP Oil Disaster, Cuba, Gulf of Mexico, Latin America & Caribbean| Tagged , , , , , | 1 Response, comments now closed

Protecting Marine Life in Cuba

Cuba coastline

Cuba coastline in the Guanahacabibes National Park. This rocky coastline is prime habitat for 3 foot long Cuban iguanas that are native to the area.

Guanahacabibes National Park, is located in the far southwest corner of Cuba, just across the Yucatan Strait from Cancun and smack dab in hurricane alley. Last week Pam Baker (from our Texas office) and I paid a visit to Cuban colleagues there to learn more about new efforts to protect fish populations, coral reefs, sea turtles, and coastal ecosystems.  

Most of the park’s waters are off-limits to the harvesting of reef fish, spiny lobster and other species.  La Bajada, a small village perched on the rocky coastline of the park, is home to a few dozen subsistence fishermen who are still allowed to catch fish in a designated area. 

The park’s pristine beaches provide important nesting grounds for endangered turtle species, including loggerhead, green, and hawksbill turtles.  Park scientists and volunteer students provide round-the-clock monitoring during nesting season and have virtually eliminated poaching of turtles in the park. 

Just recently, Cuban scientists have initiated a project to assess and control growing populations of the deadly Pacific lionfish, a non-native species that threatens native fish and fishermen alike. We are working with them to develop strategies to combat this invasive and dangerous species.  We are also teaming up to assess the impacts of sea level rise along the southern coast of Cuba and to examine adaptation and mitigation opportunities.  By some estimates, all of the park’s mangrove forests could be submerged in ocean waters by 2050.  For more on these and other collaborative projects in Cuba go to www.edf.org/cuba.

Posted in Cuba, Marine Protection| Tagged , , , | 2 Responses, comments now closed