Selected tags: Cuba

Expedition Cuba Part 3: Collaborative Research Establishes Baseline Monitoring in Cuba

Cuban and Mexican researchers, Alejandra Briones and Ivan Mendez, look at a sample that will be analyzed in CIM’s lab to assess the faunal communities in the water column.

By: Kendra Karr and Valerie Miller

Part III of a blog series detailing a February 2013 Research Expedition in Cuba organized by EDF Oceans’ Cuba, Science, and Shark teams and funded by the Waitt Foundation. A team of scientists from Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. along with EDF staff set sail to share knowledge, scientific methodologies and to survey shark populations in Cuba. The tri-national expedition was led by Cuban scientists from University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (CIM) and U.S. scientists from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida.

Researchers from Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. participated in an exploratory research cruise in the Gulf of Batabanó along the Southern coast of Cuba to monitor shark populations, local faunal communities and to train fellow team members in monitoring techniques.  Leaving the port of Batabanó, the RV Felipe Poeytransected the shallow, soft-sediment habitat that comprises the majority of the Gulf.  The cruise set off for the remote and sparsely populated Isle of Youth, the largest island in the Canarreos Archipelago.  Canarreos Archipelago is home to a national park and several marine protected areas (MPAs) which contain habitats that possess ecotourism potential and provide refuge for ecologically and economically important species such as lobsters, sharks and finfish.

U.S. researcher Dr. Ernie Estevez collects the last sample of fauna from the water column outside the corals reefs of Punta Frances.

Monitoring activities started near the southwestern portion of the island, inside Siguanea Bay, continued around Punta Frances and into the nearshore waters facing the Caribbean Sea.  This part of the Isle of Youth has a diverse array of habitats, including some of the healthiest and most intact coral reefs and mangroves in the region, as well as seagrass beds, and soft sediment habitats.   Conducting a research expedition in multiple habitats presents a unique opportunity to observe organisms living at the bottom of the ocean (in benthic habitats) and in the water column surrounding these habitats. The expedition recruited two benthic researchers (scientists who study organisms living along the bottom of the ocean) to join the team comprised mainly of shark scientists, to capitalize on the opportunity and create a baseline monitoring program of these faunal communities across habitats in the Gulf Batabanó and surrounding waters.  Dr. Ernie Estevez of the U.S. and Mote Marine Laboratory and Dr. Maickel Almanza of Cuba’s Center for Marine Research led the design of the monitoring program.

Monitoring programs help provide information about the health of the area prior to future impacts (i.e. disturbance either natural or human caused), so that analysis can aid forecasting.  Baseline data helps measure the severity of ecosystem disruptions and helps to calibrate recovery programs.  Additionally, this data may help identify areas that are more resistant, or less resilient to disturbances over time.  Long term monitoring of ecological communities and populations is one of the most effective tools that managers and scientist have to track and analyze how ecosystems work.   Unfortunately, long-term datasets are rare and those that do exist are often limited in geographic scope.

What’s a faunal community and why are they important?

The team identified plankton living in the water column and macrobenthos (small fish, crustaceans, worms and mollusks living at the bottom of the ocean) across habitats as targets because changes in the diversity and abundance of these fauna can be indicators to the health of the ecosystem, and they are critical components of important fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. The small fish, crustaceans, worms and mollusks that comprise the fauna collected in the monitoring program are often the principal food source for fish in the region. Sharks, as apex predators, depend on highly productive foraging areas (e.g., dense seagrass meadows) and support abundant amounts of prey, such as larger fish that consume plankton. The team also recorded environmental variables necessary for a healthy habitat, including temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, depth and organic content in sediments.   Absent baseline species and ecosystem data, future efforts to end overfishing, protect marine life and improve the management of marine resources will not succeed.  This is just one of the ways in which Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. are working together to improve monitoring efforts that will increase data availability and enable a tri-national assessment of shark population status, including an understanding of how variability in abundance of faunal communities and their predators influence foraging behavior and shark migration in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

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Expedition Cuba Part 2: Scientists Partner with Fishermen to Explore Cuban Waters

The tuna fishing crew meets up with the research team in the Gulf of Batabanó.

By: Valerie Miller & Kendra Karr

Part II of a blog series reporting on the February 2013 Research Expedition in Cuba organized by EDF Oceans’ Cuba, Science, and Shark teams and funded by the Waitt Foundation. A team of scientists from Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. along with EDF staff set sail on an exploratory research cruise to share knowledge, scientific methodologies and to survey shark populations in Cuba. The tri-national expedition was led by Cuban scientists from University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (CIM) and U.S. scientists from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida.

In early February the team of researchers boarded the RV Felipe Poey and departed the south coast of Cuba for the Gulf of Batabanó.  The nine-day expedition was designed to monitor shark populations, collect baseline data on plankton and benthic communities and train scientists in data collection techniques for future monitoring.  It took the entire first day to steam to the Isle of Youth.   By the evening the smooth waters and night sky had blended into one endless black landscape. As a sense of isolation set-in, the boat turned towards some lights in the distance – which emanated from a lobster station floating in the middle of the Gulf.  After a day crossing the ocean with no land in sight, it felt strange stepping off the boat and onto the deck at the station. The lobster fishermen, friends of the Cuban scientists, showed us around the facility which stores their daily catch in pens.  This moonlight meeting was just the first of many productive interactions with fishermen throughout the journey.

Collaboration is key for shark monitoring

Tapping the expertise of local fishermen was central to accomplishing the objectives of the expedition in relation to both data collection and training. The entire team learned about shark capture and tagging methods, but since the techniques had never been implemented to monitor populations in the Gulf, we relied on fishermen’s knowledge to locate sharks. We were fortunate to come across a Bonito tuna boat on multiple occasions. The tuna fishermen track sharks to locate schools of tuna and sometimes use the sharks to corral multiple schools together and cast their bamboo fishing rods to selectively catch tuna. Fishermen are able to identify sharks from notches they have previously marked in their fins.  One fisherman declared, “without sharks, there is no tuna fishery.”

On one occasion we tied our boats to together, which allowed Dr. Jorge Angulo, the lead Cuban scientist and CIM director, to catch up with the Bonito’s captain.  The old friends were happy to see each other again, and discussed where sharks are congregating in the Gulf.  The captain suggested that we explore “Los Indios,” a region off the Isle of Youth.  We ventured to Los Indios the following day to set our gear. The scientists agreed that this “edge” habitat where the reef meets the sand was more likely to have sharks, whereas much of the Gulf is shallow open water with a soft sediment bottom seafloor, not the usual preferred shark habitat.

Scientist Anmari Alvarez of Cuba’s Center for Marine Research discusses manatee monitoring with two finfish fishers.

Scientist Anmari Alvarez of Cuba’s Center for Marine Research discusses manatee monitoring with two finfish fishers.

A day’s catch sparks conversation on sharks

Along with the tuna fishermen, we also met up with a finfish fishing boat. In the mornings, the fishermen picked up researchers to help retrieve the nets set the day before and assess the catch. We all reunited in the afternoon; the fishermen’s catch displayed on the deck—a mix of rays and fish—and the researchers had the opportunity to collect data and take genetic samples of the species of interest.   Dr. Bob Hueter, head shark researcher from Mote Marine Laboratory, used a hammerhead shark caught that day to impart some shark anatomy lessons.  Researchers and fishermen were quizzed on their biological knowledge and helped take genetic samples that could potentially connect Cuba’s sharks to known populations in other regions of the Gulf of Mexico.

Our crew and the fishermen dispersed between the two decks of the connected boats to discuss the day’s work and shark habitat in the Gulf. While the fishermen we met do not direct their fishing towards sharks, they sometimes catch them as bycatch. One fisherman mentioned that they used to catch sharks more often in certain regions but believe that they have been overfished. The scientists agreed that the extent of overfishing is difficult to know since there is so little historical data on sharks in the Gulf.

Learning from the experience of the fishermen, our group hypothesized about the shark populations — preferred habitats, seasonal migration patterns and potential locations of nursery habitats. EDF’s tri-national shark conservation program is essential to improve the monitoring of shark populations in Cuba and ensuring that species are managed sustainably.

 

Unexpected opportunities in marine conservation

While the main objectives of the expedition focused on understanding shark populations in the Gulf, our interactions with the fishermen included discussions on a variety of marine life. Anmari Alvarez, a Cuban scientist who specializes in manatees, always takes the opportunity to talk about the marine mammal with fishermen. She reviewed a colorful flyer with the details on how fishermen can report a manatee sighting and explained that involving fishermen in monitoring is invaluable to her, as she cannot be in the Gulf every day. In one unexpected opportunity for collaboration, the finfish crew presented the Cuban researchers with a tag they removed from a sea turtle. They had been saving it for months, not knowing to whom to report the inscribed number. It just so happened that the tag was marked with the abbreviation for Quitana Roo, Mexico, and Ivan Mendez, a scientist from Mexico, was on-board to recover it.

Like scientists everywhere, the Cuban researchers’ monitoring efforts rely on data from fishermen’s catch. They have recently expanded their monitoring of shark landings at several ports along the north coast but have fewer resources to collect shark data in the Gulf of Batabanó. The bonds between the fishermen and scientists proved particularly important for this exploration—from sharing knowledge of shark habitats to a bi-national turtle tag exchange. There remains much to learn about shark populations in Cuba and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Our research team is now better prepared to collect and organize shark data and looks forward to partnering with fishermen in future expeditions.

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Expedition Cuba: A Tri-National Journey to Share Science and Survey Sharks, Part 1

Shark researchers from Cuba, Mexico, &  the U.S. capture a bull shark in the Gulf of Batabanó, Cuba.

Shark researchers from Cuba, Mexico, & the U.S. capture a bull shark in the Gulf of Batabanó, Cuba. (From L to R: Pedro Reyes and Alexei Ruiz of the Center for Marine Research – Cuba, Jack Morris of Mote Marine Laboratory – USA) Photo Credit: Valerie Miller

 

By: Kendra Karr & Valerie Miller

Intro by Dan Whittle: With generous support from the Waitt Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has launched a new initiative to support collaborative field research with scientists from the University of Havana's Center for Marine Research. This initiative is enabling teams of Cuban, U.S. and Mexican scientists to carry out a series of scientific expeditions to conduct important new research on Cuba's remarkable—but understudied—marine and coastal ecosystems. This effort will also support year-round port sampling of shark fishery landings at Cuban ports, contributing to EDF’s overarching tri-national shark conservation efforts throughout the Gulf of Mexico.  

On our inaugural expedition in February 2013, our tri-national team embarked on a research cruise off of Cuba's south coast in the Gulf of Batabanó to share knowledge and scientific methods, and to survey migratory shark populations. The expedition was organized by EDF Oceans’ Cuba, Science, and Shark conservation programs and led on-the-water by scientists from University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (CIM) and from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida; with participation by a scientist from Mexico’s College of the Southern Frontier (ECOSUR).

Results from this expedition will be highlighted in a 3 part blog series. Today’s post focuses on sharing science in data-limited shark fisheries.  It will be followed by stories about the partnership of fishermen and scientists and baseline data.  Join the journey here and follow along this week!

Map, Gulf of Batabano

Expedition Location – Gulf of Batabanó & Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth)

The Story behind Sharks

Sharks are top predators, critical for maintaining the health and resilience of marine ecosystems. Unfortunately, some shark populations are in trouble, primarily because more sharks are fished than are reproduced.  Across the Gulf of Mexico, migratory animals such as sharks, tunas and others are an important source of food and economic activity.  Sharks are threatened by overfishing and some populations in the Gulf of Mexico are estimated to have declined over 90% in the last 25 years.[1]

Because they are migratory, many shark species traverse political boundaries. This makes monitoring their population status difficult and presents challenges to maintaining healthy stocks and rebuilding depleted ones. Many shark fisheries are considered “data-limited,” with little available information to assess the stock, including basic statistics covering reproduction, life span, migrations, abundance, and amount landed — both from targeted fishing and accidental catch – known as bycatch.

Eighty percent of all fisheries biomass and the vast majority of stocks in most countries are data poor.  Fortunately, scientific techniques exist to help assess fisheries with minimal data. EDF’s Oceans science team is advancing assessment methods that use easily gathered data or pre-existing information. The key to assessing data-limited fisheries is to have access to any available fishery data (for example, catch at sea or at a landing site) or to fishery independent surveys (for example, monitoring of shark size, sex and abundance). Depending on the method used, a data-limited assessment estimates the current population’s sustainable catch, risk of overfishing, or stock status – how healthy the stock is at current fishing levels. The first step to take advantage of these new data-limited assessment methods is to pull together any available data and improve monitoring.

Although some shark populations in the Gulf of Mexico are well studied and the U.S. has conducted comprehensive assessments, more data is needed on migratory shark species throughout the region.  EDF and our partners are taking the first steps to help determine the status of populations. Toward this end, EDF established a tri-national partnership for monitoring and management of shark fisheries among scientists in Cuba, Mexico and the United States. Scientists are working together to collect and organize information on shark catches from fishing ports and aboard fishing vessels, as well as conducting biological monitoring surveys across a diverse array of habitats apart from shark fishery catch. The partnership has reached agreement with INAPESCA, Mexico’s national fisheries research institute, to standardize shark monitoring methods across all of its Gulf States. Scientists from Cuba’s Center for Marine Research (CIM) are building a shark database and working with partners in Mexico to incorporate their data. All of these steps will aid in future assessments, setting conservation goals and sustaining populations and fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. These efforts are the backbone of a successful shark recovery program. Read More »

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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. Read More »

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60 Minutes and Cuban Reefs

Underwater photo of elk horn coral and reef fish in the Gardens of the Queen marine park in Cuba.

Elkhorn coral and reef fish in the Gardens of the Queen marine park in Cuba.

Hats off to CBS for the recent “60 Minutes” segment on the coral reefs of the “Gardens of the Queen” (Jardines de la Reina) in Cuba!

The Gardens of the Queen is a spectacular national park off the south central coast of Cuba.  EDF has had the privilege of working with Cuban scientists and resource managers in the park for several years.  Just this past November we teamed up with Cuban partners there to host an international workshop on fisheries management and marine protected areas.  In 2012 we will partner with Cuban scientists to study the benefits on fish populations from restricting most fisheries inside the park.

The 60 Minutes piece highlights the good work Cubans are doing to protect marine ecosystems and the challenges that lie ahead.  I was especially impressed with the work of CBS producer Anya Bourg to ensure that the piece was rigorous – as much as possible – in its treatment of complex scientific issues.  Explaining complicated and often subtle relationships in plain and compelling language is a real feat!

For the most part, 60 Minutes got it right.  Let me expand on two key themes from the piece, based on work we are doing with Cuban scientists to help understand the lessons from the Gardens of the Queen. Read More »

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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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