EDFish

Selected tag(s): Marine Protection

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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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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Innovative Fisheries Management Tools Can Help Further Protect Glover’s Reef and Other Areas in Belize

Conch diver in Belize

Conch diver in Belize.

Erik Olsen presents a balanced perspective on management and conditions a Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve in Belize in “Protected Reef Offers Model for Conservation” (New York Times, Science, April 27, 2010) and “On Patrol with the Reef Ranger” (New York Times, Green Blog, April 27, 2010).  The Government of Belize has worked well with NGOs and fishermen to establish and maintain this reserve, no easy task when resources are limited.  The abundant sea life and recovering sharks and rays are evidence of excellent performance at this site.

But, Glover’s Reef and other areas in Belize are under increasing pressure from overfishing.  Indicators of this include an unsustainable increase in the number of fishermen, the decline in catch of targeted high-value species such as lobster and grouper, and an increase in the catching of parrotfish – a species critical for maintaining the health of the reef.  The question for managers, conservationists, and fishermen is how to integrate sustainable fisheries management with the marine reserve to prevent and even reverse overfishing in the reserves.

Community meeting of fishermen in Belize.

Community meeting of fishermen in Belize.

In response to the threat of overfishing, Environmental Defense Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, Belize Fisheries Department and Belizean fishermen communities have partnered on an initiative to protect and restore fisheries at Glover’s Reef and elsewhere in Belize through the implementation of innovative, incentive-based tools for fisheries management. 

One of the major causes of overfishing at Glover’s Reef is that it is an open access fishery.  While this creates an opportunity for all to catch fish, it is also encouraging fishermen to catch too much fish too quickly.  As fish populations get depleted, the health of the reef suffers and fishermen livelihoods become vulnerable.  To solve this problem fishermen must either agree to end the competition and cooperate to sustainably harvest fish (cooperative fishing); or incentives can be put into place to encourage such behavior by empowering fishermen with secure shares of the catch or access to fishing grounds (catch share management). 

This initiative builds on the science and management work already underway at Glover’s Reef – the catch data collection that is critical to the implementation of a catch share program, and monitoring the overall ecosystem health of the atoll.  Cooperative fishing and catch shares will also enable local community groups to play a more central role in the management of their fisheries, including implementing the enforcement and monitoring necessary for sustainable management.

Glover’s Reef is a jewel, and a critical space for the livelihoods of fishermen and health of Belize’s Barrier Reef and the Mesoamerican marine ecosystem.  Linking good fisheries management with MPAs is a critical step to ensure that current and future generations enjoy and benefit from its resources.

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New NOAA Report Shows Progress Being Made to Rebuild and Sustain Fisheries and Ocean Ecosystems – Catch Shares Help

Cover of NOAA report, Our Living Oceans - 6th edition.

Cover of NOAA report, Our Living Oceans - 6th edition.

In NOAA’s newly released 6th edition of Our Living Oceans: Report on the Status of U.S. Marine Resources, catch shares (referred to as Limited Access Privilege Programs – LAPPs) are raised as one solution to the over-harvesting of fisheries. Citing the successes of established catch share programs, Our Living Oceans reports that the Alaska halibut fishery has seen healthy stocks with near record levels of total catch since the implementation of its catch share program.

Recognizing some challenges of implementing catch shares, the report rightly points out that policies set during the design of a catch share can address those challenges and concerns.

“Additional rules or special programs built into the LAPP either at implementation or after implementation can often mitigate any potential negative impacts.”

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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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