Selected tags: Cuba

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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Diving in the Jardines de la Reina – Gardens of the Queen – in Southeastern Cuba

After hundreds of dives around the Caribbean – and decades of “fish watching” – I thought there was nothing left in that part of the world to knock my socks off.  Boy, was I wrong!

Tortuga floating hotel in Los Jardines de la Reina, Cuba

Tortuga floating hotel in Los Jardines de la Reina, Cuba

I have heard for years about the wonders of the Jardines de la Reina – the Gardens of the Queen – in southeastern Cuba, and so was prepared for better-than-average diving during a recent week of exploring opportunities for scientific research in the recently declared national park.  Our base was the floating hotel, “Tortuga,” operated jointly by Cuba and the Italian company, Avalon.

I was totally unprepared for the sheer spectacle created by massive Goliath groupers, swarms of huge groupers and snappers, carpets of other reef fishes, and by the parade of sharks on every dive.  Diving with free-swimming Goliath groupers – behemoths sometimes nearly the size of Volkswagens – is a never to be forgotten experience.

Dr. Doug Rader with a Goliath grouper in Cuba

Dr. Doug Rader with a Goliath grouper in Cuba

Sharks are the calling card for the Gardens to divers from around the world: silky, Caribbean reef, blacktips, lemons and nurse sharks, plus the diving “holy grail” – whale sharks – the world’s largest sharks.  During our week, divers hailed from Lithuania, Latvia, the UK, Germany and the US.

Whale sharks, in fact, create their own microcosms as they feed on zooplankton and herrings that are also eating the zooplankton attracting schools of small tuna called bonitos that in turn attract silky sharks and seabirds in a massive feeding orgy.  Spotters find whale sharks by the birds picking up the leftovers.  The week before we were there groups of divers saw whale sharks every day.  Changing weather meant clearer water and better diving, but shifted the whale sharks away from our location – only one was sited our week, and not by us!

Caribbean reef shark

Caribbean reef shark

In addition to a variety of dives on different types of reef formations, we also spent many hours snorkeling. We examined every key habitat of the Gardens, from the nurseries formed by shallow-water mangroves and seagrass beds, to patch reefs and reef crests, and then to fore reefs and coral canyons and walls. 

Each new habitat added to a list of fishes that by week’s end numbered 124 species.  Actually, we did no night diving or snorkeling, and so missed a whole element of fish diversity which hides under coral heads during the day.  Also, I realized at the end of the trip that I had failed to notice many species because the large fishes distracted me.  Cuban scientists  in the Gardens suggested that many of the smaller fish we are used to seeing during the day in the more depleted reefs around the Caribbean are also there, but must spend more time hiding under the corals given the huge abundance of predators!  Makes sense to me.

Carpet of reef fish - school of fish

A carpet of reef fish

The one “downer” we encountered was the amazing prevalence of invasive Pacific red lionfishes, which we saw on nearly every dive and snorkel, regardless of depth, and regardless of habitat type.  While the impact of these voracious predators armed with poisonous spines remains unknown, it cannot be good to have so many on the reefs and in the shallows.  On one dive, I counted 22 lionfish and one of my colleagues counted 23.  Apparently, many foreigners like to see them, unaware of the challenge to the reef – the bellwether for a future full of changing animal populations as oceans warm and acidify – that they may represent.

All in all, our EDF team returned both awed at the beauty found in this remote location, but also energized by the potential for restoration of fish populations that a combination of proper management of marine parks and effective fisheries management represent.  Given the fact that most of these reef species have life histories that reach all the way across the continental shelf, the third piece of the puzzle, of course, must be effective coastal zone management – more about that later!

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Dan Whittle and Doug Rader Discuss Cuba on PBS, "Cuba: The Accidental Eden" Premieres This Sunday

Dan Whittle, EDF Cuba Program Director; Dr. Doug Rader, Chief Oceans Scientist

This Sunday, September 26, "Cuba: The Accidental Eden" premiers on PBS' NATURE series and includes interviews with our own Dan Whittle and Dr. Doug Rader.  Cuba's shores and surrounding waters hold a tremendous amount of ecological treasures of vital importance to marine conservation in the Caribbean. Our Latin America and Caribbean team at EDF, including Dan and Doug, recognize Cuba's environmental significance and has been collaborating with Cuban scientists to address issues of overfishing, coral reefs protection and coastal conservation, and potential ocean energy.

PBS' NATURE Series also recognizes the environmental wealth and challenges scientists face in their work on Cuba. The program will show the work of these scientists and take a look at how the possibility of an end to the U.S. trade embargo could increase development and threaten a nearly pristine ecosystem, or position Cuba to set an example for development and conservation around the world.  Check local listings.

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Joint U.S.-Cuba-Mexico shark catch share gaining media interest

This weekend Reuters wrote a story about two EDF staff members’ recent trip to Cuba. Last week Dan Whittle, Pamela Baker and U.S. scientists visited with Cuban officials to discuss collaboration between the U.S., Cuba and Mexico to better protect the Gulf of Mexico’s struggling shark population. EDF and Mote Marine Laboratory are promoting improved management for sharks, including exploration of catch share management systems increasingly used to meet the conservation and economic objectives in diverse parts of the world.

Shark populations have been troubled for years, primarily due to overfishing, in part resulting from China’s high demand for shark fin soup. Sharks are “highly migratory,” meaning they travel throughout the Gulf and beyond, not just in U.S. waters.

For Gulf sharks — and the benefits they provide to local communities — to be sustained over the long-term, a cooperative effort between the three countries that fish in Gulf waters is key. Catch shares can offer advantages over conventional regulations by creating incentives for fishermen to focus on a steady and high quality catch over higher volume, often lower quality harvests. Important political and other challenges exist, but the potential benefits of cooperation make the effort worthwhile.  Management programs should be designed to achieve the conservation, economic and social objectives of the three countries.

Read the full story.

At the end of September, EDF will be participating in a tri-national workshop with U.S., Cuban and Mexican scientists to finalize a long-term marine research and conservation plan for the Gulf of Mexico at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. Sharks will be discussed as one of six working groups focused on priority resources in the Gulf of Mexico. More information will be posted on EDFish as the event approaches.

Read more about our work in Cuba or about shark populations in the Gulf.

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BP Oil Disaster Hasn't Touched the Southeast Atlantic – Yet, Writes EDF's Chief Scientist, Doug Rader

The evolution of the Gulf Loop Current from a strong downstream delivery phase on May 7 to a cutoff eddy phase on June 11, temporarily detaining oil pollution. Credit: NWS.

Today in the Charlotte Observer newspaper,  EDF’s Chief Ocean Scientist Doug Rader explained why the Southeast isn’t yet tripping over tar balls in an op-ed titled, “BP oil spill not in our backyard – yet.”

For the most part, Southeasterners can thank an eddy named Franklin, which has kept oil out of the currents heading toward the Florida Keys. Instead, Franklin is pushing it westward. But Franklin won’t last forever, and the normal loop current  is already starting to reestablish itself. Once this happens, the oil again will spread east around the tip of Florida.

“Unless this week's efforts to fully cap the well are successful, the already profound toll – environmental, human and economic – could multiply, both in the Gulf and in the broader world we share,” Rader cautions.

Read other blog posts by Doug Rader on the BP oil disaster.

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