Selected tags: Cuba

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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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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U.S. and Cuba, Working Together to Protect Shared Resources

Cuba lies just 90 miles from the tip of Florida. The two areas share a large expanse of ocean – and the huge array of biodiversity contained within it. That’s why EDF staffers are in Cuba this week to discuss ways to eliminate overfishing, protect coral reefs, conserve coastal areas, and tap potential ocean energy in our shared backyard.

Already, in September, EDF hosted a Cuban delegation in a move towards creating greater scientific exchange between the two countries. “The U.S. and Cuba share many ecological resources, but have different ways of managing them," says EDF’s Dan Whittle. "Fishing, coastal development, and offshore oil and gas exploration in Cuba can have impacts in the U.S., and vice-versa. The sooner we work together to manage shared resources and find solutions to common problems, the sooner we'll see benefits for the people, the environment and the economy in both countries."

We'll have a follow up post to report on the trip when our scientists return.

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U.S./Cuba History in the Making

EDF Staff with Cuban delegates in Washington, D.C.Last week marked the beginning of a sea change in U.S. and Cuba cooperation on the environment. Our Oceans team invited and secured visas for a delegation of Cuban scientists to come to the U.S. for meetings with EDF and other partners. EDF has been working in Cuba for almost a decade to protect coral reefs, conserve mangroves and other vulnerable coastal ecosystems, and to conduct scientific research with our Cuban partners.

During this historic visit, EDF staff and our Cuban guests discussed future opportunities to collaborate, both in Cuba and the U.S. Of paramount importance are new projects aimed at protecting and sustaining fish populations and other shared resources in the Gulf of Mexico, northern Caribbean, and Atlantic.

Staff from our Climate and Air program and Land, Water and Wildlife program made presentations on their work and initiated discussions on possible collaborations on climate change and agricultural runoff. On Friday, the delegation traveled to Sarasota to meet with scientists from the Mote Marine Lab. Scientists from EDF and Mote are involved in a tri-national collaboration on marine sciences and conservation with our partners from Cuba and from Mexico.

Despite years of political separation, Dan Whittle, director of EDF's Cuba Project says, "The environment knows no borders, and the resources we share are so important. We see the environment as the one issue that can bring the two countries together."

Denise Stetten, manager of the Latin America and Caribbean Oceans Program at EDF says, "The spirit of the meetings was extremely positive and several important projects for collaboration emerged. We will be sure to follow through with those ideas and continue to build on our foundation of cooperation."

News coverage of the visit:

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