Author Archives: Dan Whittle

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 »

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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.

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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!

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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

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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.

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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.

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EDF Staff Back From Cuba

For decades a political gulf has separated the United States and Cuba.  Last week, scientists and conservationists from the US and Cuba met in Havana to discuss a gulf that brings the two countries together—the Gulf of Mexico.  Early in the week, EDF staff met with colleagues from the US, Cuba and Mexico to develop a variety of cooperative projects to restore depleted shark populations, protect shallow and deepwater coral reefs, and manage vulnerable coastal ecosystems such as mangroves and seagrasses. 

Cuba_Ansud-Flickr

Photo by Tony Zelenoff

This tri-national meeting, organized by our colleagues at the Cuban environmental ministry and the US-based NGO 1Planet1Ocean, was the third in a series of meetings in which scientists from the three countries have exchanged science and ideas for restoring marine resources in the Gulf of Mexico.

Later in the week, EDF and Cuban experts hosted a workshop on how marine protected areas and innovative fisheries management tools, like catch shares, can be used together to restore important ocean fish populations. I greatly appreciate the warm welcome we have consistently received from our colleagues in Cuba. They deserve great credit for making this collaboration work. It is clear that greater cooperation on environmental protection in the Gulf of Mexico has real potential to bridge the political gulf that still exists between Cuba and the US.

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