Selected tags: coral reef

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 | Also tagged , , , , | 2 Responses, comments now closed

Establishing a biological and ecological baseline of Cuba’s coastal ecosystems

By: Kendra Karr & Owen Liu

A team of scientists from Cuba and EDF set sail on an expedition to assess the status and health of marine ecosystems of the Gulf of Ana Maria and the Gardens of the Queen marine reserve in southern Cuba, one of the most pristine and intact coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean.

One morning we awoke to a small tuna boat pulling up alongside the RV Felipe Poey.  The crew of the “Unidad ‘77” had been targeting bonito, a small tuna-like fish, south of the Gardens of the Queen marine reserve. EDF scientists were eager to tap into the captain’s localized knowledge, and peppered him with questions that were ably translated by CIM’s Patricia González.   The captain described his fishing grounds, proudly displayed his catch and explained how his crew times their trips to coincide with certain phases of the moon.  Before shoving off, the captain asked for some cooking oil for his next voyage.  We traded oil for tuna and enjoyed fresh fish for many meals over the next few days.

 

A Scientific Baseline for Management:

Vessels like Unidad ‘77 are common in Cuba: small boats that work for the state, the livelihoods of their crews dependent upon a stable resource base.  This and future expeditions will synthesize scientific findings to inform the management of Cuba’s marine resources.  While our voyage was one of discovery, there were practical benefits too; the datasets we initiated will ultimately increase understanding of how ecosystems in Cuba work, which is essential to developing its coastal fishing economy in a sustainable manner.

Long-term monitoring programs are some of the most powerful tools that managers and scientists have to track and gauge ecosystem performance, variation and resilience.  They generate baseline information about the status of a target species or ecosystem. In many cases, baseline information is used to analyze an impacted region after a major change (such as a disturbance either natural or human produced), or as reference data to compare between areas of interest; for example, to compare Cuba to other regions of the Caribbean that have been heavily impacted.  Well-designed programs aid in evaluating impacts and help tailor recovery and management strategies. Additionally, long term monitoring data helps to identify areas that are more or less resilient to change over time. We can identify factors that enhance ecosystem health and resilience, as well as factors that have negative impacts.

But long-term fishery datasets are rare, and of those that exist, most are limited in their geographic scope.  The data collected during this expedition and future trips represent a significant step forward for Cuba.  Additional trips are planned in other regions of the country, alongside annual sampling across all of the monitoring regions including the Gardens of the Queen.

 

Data for Sustainable Fisheries Management:

Like Unidad 77’s crew, fishermen across Cuba rely upon on finite marine resources to survive. Better management, fortified by sound science, is essential to sustain livelihoods from the sea.  These jobs are a critical component in any coastal nation’s economy. Unfortunately, across the Caribbean and in Cuba, commercially valuable fish stocks are in jeopardy.  By better understanding fish populations, EDF can assist Cuban scientists, managers and fishermen in developing science-based recommendations for sustainable fishery management policies, such as cooperatives and other catch shares.

To inform management efforts, fishery data and fishery models are used to generate stock assessments which can provide estimates of the current population size of species, rate of fishing, time trends, and optimum levels of population size and harvest rates. In addition, the existing fishery dependent data can be used in combination with the fishery independent monitoring to provide stronger stock projections. Our October expedition focused on using fishery independent visual surveys, and began developing a fishery dependent monitoring program using beach seine. Combining both fishery independent and dependent monitoring enables a full view of the assemblage of fish that would otherwise be difficult to sample without the use of fishing gear — for example, fish that exist in shallow, sandy nearshore habitats. Read More »

Posted in Cuba, Science/Research | Also tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

Collaborative research in the Gulf of Ana Maria & the Gardens of the Queen

By: Kendra Karr & Owen Liu

A team of scientists from Cuba and EDF set sail on an expedition to assess the status and health of marine ecosystems of the Gulf of Ana Maria and the Gardens of the Queen marine reserve in southern Cuba, one of the most pristine and intact coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean.

Cuba’s Centro de Investigaciones de Ecosistemas Costeras (CIEC) field station in the Gardens of the Queen is a cozy lodge in a quiet inlet tucked away on a mangrove-covered cay.  Near the Caballones Strait in the middle of the beautiful Gardens of the Queen, the station is a base for Cuban students and researchers studying Cuba’s unique coastal ecosystems.  On our research cruise in October 2013, scientists from EDF, CIEC, and the University of Havana’s Centro de Investigaciones Marinas (CIM) spent a few nights at the station, interspersed along the two week trip.  We used the shore time to compile data and organize gear, scramble for a few minutes of (very) limited Internet access to send updates home and simply enjoy a night on dry ground.

Sitting on the dock watching the sun set over the Gardens provided a chance to reflect on the work we were doing, and to ponder about the interconnectivity between the data sets we had collected.

A Diversity of Data:

During the cruise, researchers from CIM, CIEC, and EDF surveyed more than 30 sites across multiple habitat types, both inside and out of the Gardens of the Queen marine reserve. In the future, these sites will offer a baseline measure of connectivity between the offshore environments and nearshore fishing grounds.  During the expedition, researchers collected samples from commercially-valuable fish species, corals, sessile and mobile invertebrates and macroalgae.

All of the samples will undergo an independent stable isotope analysis, which allows researchers to quantify the relative contributions of individuals from each region/site to the fishing grounds and identify migration corridors among important habitats.  In short, it will help determine where an individual fish, coral colony, etc. originated from.  Combined with oceanographic and abiotic data collected during the expedition (for example, nutrients and sediments in seawater; tides, currents and waves), this information will reveal a more complete picture of interconnectivity between the various marine habitats in this unique region of the Caribbean.

We used a variety of methods to gather data.  To assess coral health, researchers used SCUBA to get close enough to the reef to document the diversity of species at each site and look for signs of degradation or disease.  To study which fish used shallow seagrass – mangrove habitats as either nursery grounds or as adult habitats, we used a beach seine net from the shoreline to corral, count, and measure individual fish.  By seeing which species of fish utilized the nearshore mangrove and seagrass beds, and then counting the fish on the nearby coral reefs with a visual transect method, we could begin to see, literally, the biological connections between these distinct habitats.  As some researchers were in the water, counting fish or documenting coral health, others collected water samples for chemical analysis or hauling in a sampling net. Read More »

Posted in Cuba, Science/Research | Also tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

Tri-national collaboration & research in the Gardens of the Queen: The expedition begins

By: Kendra Karr & Owen Liu

With support from the Waitt Foundation, EDF launched an initiative last year with the University of Havana's Center for Marine Research that allowed teams of Cuban, U.S. and Mexican scientists to carry out a series of expeditions to conduct vital new research on Cuba's remarkable—but understudied—marine and coastal ecosystems. 

A Special Caribbean Reef

Coral reefs are some of the world’s most imperiled marine habitats.  Impacts from climate change, pollution, overfishing and resource extraction combine to threaten reefs all over the world.  This is especially true in the Caribbean, where rapid development is underway across the Caribbean Sea, exacerbating the stressors on coral reefs and their related seagrass and mangrove ecosystems.

However, in one special corner of the Caribbean, the Gardens of the Queen archipelago, has remained remarkably resilient in the face of this collective pressure.  A Caribbean marine paradise, The Gardens consist of more than 600 cays and islands and is home to the largest contiguous reserve in the Caribbean at 2,170 square kilometers.  It supports a mosaic of mangrove, seagrass, patch reefs, fringing red and reef slope and is abundant with fish, sharks and other marine life.

To reach the Gardens of the Queen from mainland Cuba, one must bisect the Gulf of Ana Maria, a shallow-water system comprised of mangrove, seagrass and coral reefs. The ecosystems of the Gulf of Ana Maria and Gardens of the Queen together cover more than 10,000 square kilometers of productive habitat, making the entire archipelago a magnet for eco-tourism, including SCUBA diving and recreational fishing. Despite a growing eco-tourism industry and offering one of the best examples of a resilient Caribbean reef, much about the Gardens remains a mystery.

We are excited about our partnership with the University of Havana’s Centro de Investigaciones Marinas (CIM) and the Centro de Investigaciones de Ecosistemas Costeras (CIEC), and the potential for collaborative scientific exploration to yield foundational data  and information about marine habitats in and around the Gardens of the Queen.  Our inaugural expedition in (February) 2013 harnessed expertise from a tri-national team of scientists, which shared knowledge and scientific methods while surveying migratory shark populations off Cuba's south coast in the Gulf of Batabanó, to the west of the Gardens of the Queen.  In October 2013, scientists from the three organizations hopped aboard the RV Felipe Poey and RV Itajara to journey to the Gardens reserve itself, and the nearby Gulf of Ana Maria.  This 19-day expedition produced new data about the special Gardens ecosystems, and shared expertise among scientists from the three organizations, promoted collaboration, increased scientific capacity and forged new friendships. Read More »

Posted in Cuba, Science/Research | Also tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

Deepwater Corals Are Out of Sight, But They Shouldn’t Be Out of Mind

Credit: Steve W. Ross (UNCW), unpubl. data.

Among the unseen and uncounted victims of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico are the inhabitants of the ancient deepwater coral reefs that lie under the still-growing plume of oil.  Newly discovered, and still largely unexplored, these “rainforests of the deep” may become polluted and degraded before we even know exactly where they occur.

Deepwater wonders

Deepwater corals were first discovered in U.S. waters in the 19th century, during the early voyages of discovery, but only in the modern age of deepsea submarines and remotely operated vehicles did exploration truly begin.

Credit: Steve W. Ross (UNCW), unpubl. data.

As exploration has unfolded, scientists have been amazed at the extent and character of these underwater wonderlands, with new species being discovered with nearly every dive, including unknown forms with the potential to contain novel chemicals with pharmaceutical applications.  A cancer cure may lie in the darkness of the deep sea. 

Additionally, the branches of millennia-old corals have recorded in their layers an unequalled history of the recent life of the planet, including deepsea conditions that will allow ancient climates to be modeled.

 

Gulf of Mexico coral reefs

Credit: Geoplatform.gov

Credit: USGS

 Click images for larger view

The best-known deepwater reefs in the Gulf are located in the Viosca Knolls region, on the northern edge of the DeSoto Canyon, only twenty miles from the blown-out BP well, and on the edge of the Mississippi Canyon west of the blowout site.  In addition, there are known deepwater reefs off the West Florida Shelf and elsewhere in the Gulf.  Exciting research is currently underway in the Gulf, including the deployment of “lunar lander” data recorders for year-long stays on the bottom near the reefs, which could provide badly needed baseline information for pre-blowout conditions.

See a thorough analysis of coral reefs in the Gulf, Southeast and elsewhere here.

Toxins raining down on corals

The deepwater origin of the BP oil disaster, the use of dispersants at the wellhead, and the resulting development of sub-surface plumes of oil-based pollution floating and drifting with sub-surface currents, mean that Gulf deepwater corals are at serious risk of direct degradation from the broken well, including a wide array of materials that would likely prove toxic to them. Normally, at least some of the toxic substances from an oil spill would evaporate as oil sits on the ocean surface, but in this situation, many of the toxins remain dissolved, emulsified or otherwise entrained in near-bottom waters and middle depths, drifting with the currents and potentially exposing deepwater reefs.   Coral’s naturally slow growth rates and uncertain reproduction means that any damage would be difficult if not impossible to remediate or offset.

To make matters worse, oil that does make it to the ocean surface doesn’t stay there.  While some of the toxic material on the surface is burned or evaporated, much is again treated with dispersant chemicals, forming smaller droplets that easily stick to debris raining into the abyss.  In addition, a significant fraction of weathered oil also ultimately sinks back to the depths of the ocean. Although estimates vary widely, the best guess is that 25-30% or so of the oil from the 1979 Ixtoc 1 blowout in Campeche Bay in the southwestern Gulf sank to the bottom.

Credit: LUMCON

Another real threat comes from the decomposition of oil-based organic matter under water.  “Dead zones” are well-known in the shallower waters of the northern Gulf, driven mostly by nutrients and organic matter from the outflows from the Mississippi River.  In this case, underwater “dead zones” at a variety of depths are likely, and could add an additional punch to fragile ancient corals.

Protecting deepwater treasures

Credit: SAFMC

Ironically, as Gulf coral reefs face an uncertain future, thousands of square miles of reefs are being protected in a new program nearby in the Southeast Atlantic. I had the great privilege of chairing the panel responsible for this magnificent advance. 

Over the past decade, a unique collaboration of academic researchers, managers and fishermen have worked together to craft a landmark protection program for 23,000 square miles of deepwater reefs stretching from North Carolina to Florida.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approved these protections just this month, which will protect the coral reefs against fishing and many non-fishing threats.  While this designation by itself does not guarantee that oil and gas drilling could not occur there, it means that risks to those corals would have to be taken into account during lease sales and other project planning and design.

Two of the many researchers instrumental in securing these coral protections—Dr. Steve Ross from UNC Wilmington and Dr. John Reed from Harbor Branch—have each published their corals research online.

Corals in the crosshairs

The bottom line, sadly, is that ancient Gulf of Mexico coral reefs lie in the crosshairs of oil pollution from the BP oil disaster and it will be some time before scientists are able to begin damage assessments.  Research cruises scheduled for September may begin that process.

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

Posted in BP Oil Disaster, Gulf of Mexico, South Atlantic | Also tagged , , , , , , | Comments closed