Cuba’s crown jewel of coral reefs

The 6-foot Caribbean reef shark came out of the water thrashing, and Fabian Pina Amargos and his crew quickly pulled it into the research boat. A team set to work, immobilising the shark’s mouth and tail, pouring water over it to keep it breathing and inserting a yellow plastic tag into a small hole punched in its dorsal fin. “What is its condition?” Fabian’s wife, Tamara Figueredo Martin, asked. “Excellent, the condition is excellent,” Fabian said, before the team pulled out the hook, carefully lifted the shark up and tossed it back into the ocean.

A marine biologist and director of Cuba’s Center for Coastal Ecosystem Research, Fabian has spent much of his career studying the abundance of fish and other wildlife in this archipelago 50 miles off the country’s south coast, a region so fecund it has been called the Galapagos of the Caribbean. He has a deep love for its biological riches: the lush mangrove forests, the sharks and grouper, the schools of brightly-coloured snapper, grunts and angelfish and the vibrant coral reef, largely untouched by bleaching or other assaults, a bright spot in an often depressing litany of worldwide oceanic decline.

Preserving the abundance
As a student at Havana University, Fabian took part in the first oceans survey in Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) after the Cuban government established a 367-square-mile marine preserve here in 1996, tightly restricting tourism in the preserve and banning all fishing except for lobster, an important part of Cuba’s economy. He has completed many other studies since, demonstrating, for example, the beneficial effects of the preserve on fish populations inside and outside the marine sanctuary. And research by Fabian’s centre played a role in the government’s decision to designate a marine protected area of about 830 square miles in 2010.

But Fabian still has a long list of questions he would like to pursue. For example, he is eager to learn more about the biology, travel patterns and habits of sharks and Atlantic goliath grouper here, large, highly mobile predators that are important to coral reefs and a major tourist draw. And he hopes someday to understand why the reef in Jardines de la Reina is so resilient, when other reefs around the world are dying, succumbing to overfishing, pollution, coastal development and the effects of climate change.

Conducting marine research in Cuba is not easy. The country has only two principal research vessels: the 30-foot Itajara, the boat used by the recent expedition, and another, larger boat belonging to Havana University. Travel and communication barriers often make collaborating with American scientists complicated.

“Our two countries are connected by the water, and fish and other organisms move freely there,” said Jorge Angulo-Valdes, a senior scientist at Havana University’s Center for Marine Research who is also doing work in Jardines de la Reina and has collaborated with Fabian. “They don’t need a visa to come down or go up.” Warblers migrating south from New York take a needed break in Cuba’s Zapata Swamp. Sharks and manatees travel back and forth. Grouper eggs spawned here are eaten weeks or months later as adult fish in Miami Beach.

“When you have two areas that are 90 miles away, it’s not only possible but it’s probable that a considerable number of eggs and larvae are moving between Cuban and American reefs,” said Jake Kritzer, an ocean and fisheries expert at the Environmental Defense Fund who participated in the expedition. “What we do in terms of fisheries management of Cuban reefs can have effects on the abundance of different populations on US reefs, and vice versa,” he said.

On a recent morning in late May, the crew loaded up the Itajara with supplies for the day’s work. The boat was docked at the research station in the mangroves off Anclitas cay, a no-frills wooden structure built atop a platform anchored by pilings. With its narrow walkways, the station seemed as much in the water as over it. Tarpon darted under the back deck. A school of sergeant major fish cruised by. A female crocodile, a longtime resident, rested motionless under a mangrove tree. Today, the targets were bigger fish, like the goliath grouper, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds — “like a small car,” Fabian said — and of course, the sharks that frequent the waters surrounding the coral reef here.

Visitors to Jardines de la Reina are impressed by the sharks, how many there are and how close they come to divers, circling them, coasting by them, gliding up for a look-see. The sharks are a tourist attraction — at two of the many diving spots in the Gardens, they are fed to ensure larger numbers — but to scientists like Fabian and Jake, their very presence here is an indicator of the coral reef’s robustness. Research has linked the health of reefs to habitation by large fish, and the absence of sharks and other top predators is often a sign of a reef in decline.

“If you like coral reefs, you have to like sharks,” said David E Guggenheim, a marine scientist who has worked extensively in Cuba and runs trips to Jardines de la Reina through his organisation, Ocean Doctor. “They are critically important to maintaining population balance. If they are gone, the algae can overgrow the reef and smother it.” The resilience of this coral reef seems beyond question. The waters inside the preserve hold 10 times as many sharks as outside, Fabian said, and goliath grouper, rare in many places, are often seen here.

Positive numbers
Remoteness, several scientists said, probably accounts for some of the reef’s strength. Genetics may also play a role. But the reef here was not always as healthy; it has substantially recovered and thrived since the marine preserve, one of the largest in the Caribbean, was established nearly 20 years ago.

A study by Fabian and his colleagues found that fish populations increased an average of 30 per cent since the sanctuary was created. Yet the preserve alone cannot ensure the protection of sharks and other large predators, species that travel long distances and are unlikely to respect the boundaries of sanctuaries. Although fishing is banned in the smaller marine preserve, it is still allowed in the larger protected marine area that Cuba has designated a national park.

Rachel Graham, a whale shark expert and executive director of Maralliance, a conservation organisation, said that sharks were still actively fished in the national park, just outside the borders of the sanctuary. “There is a lot of dipping into the edges,” said Rachel, who has worked in Jardines de la Reina. And further out, in the Gulf of Ana Maria, “All bets are off,” she said. Regular surveys of the size, number and location of sharks in a given area provide information that can eventually help forge new strategies to reduce such fishing — Cuba is in the process of developing a national shark plan.

Figueredo, an environmental economist, has devoted much of her work to calculating the monetary value of tourists’ diving with sharks, watching jacks and angelfish dart in and out of stands of living Elkhorn coral and fly-fishing in waters filled with tarpon and bone fish. Her studies, she hopes, will help Cuban officials develop guidelines for tourism in the smaller preserve and in the larger national park. Tourism in large doses poses its own threat, however. Last year, under the government’s limits, fewer than 3,000 divers and fly-fishermen visited Jardines de la Reina. But the opening of relations between Cuba and the United States means that many more tourists may soon come.

By Erica Goode, Deccan Herald

August 4, 2015

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