Fishing the Cuban flats

In Cuba, like the Florida Keys, flats fishing is a big deal.

Thousands of foreign fishermen travel to the island nation each year in hopes of landing a 40-plus pound tarpon, or an elusive bonefish, on the flats and releasing it back into the wild. The catch-and-release fishing generates significant revenue for the country with little impact to the fishery, conservationists said.

Nearly all of the recreational flats fishing takes place in marine protected areas, which allow only catch-and-release fishing.

The conservation group Bonefish Tarpon Trust started its work in Cuba in 2008 with a collaborative bonefish tagging research program.

Bonefish Tarpon Trust Director Aaron Adams and Lower Keys fishing guide and filmmaker Capt. Will Benson went to Cuba in November 2013 to take part in a symposium entitled “Sportfish as a Conservation Tool.”

The symposium was a chance for fishermen on both sides of the straits to discuss habitat protection and the benefits of catch-and-release fishing. They discussed ways of fishing that put a heavy emphasis on catch and release and conservation, selling the fishing experience in a way that is true ecotourism, Benson said.

“We talked about how it is not just about boating a tarpon or large gamefish, but watching it jump a few times then breaking them off,” Benson said. “We talked about telling customers about the natural history and biology of the waters and estuaries they are fishing in.”

Adams and Benson traveled to some of Cuba’s prime backcountry fishing spots on the north and south side of the island, including the area in the Nacional Parque Cienaga de Zapata, which has been referred to as a “Little Everglades.”

Adams and Benson urged Cubans to protect Cienaga de Zapata, and not allow it to fall to the same fate as the Everglades, where federal and state fishery and park managers plan to spend billions of dollars in an effort to restore the historical flow of water.

“They can learn from our mistakes,” Benson said. “Their scientists know about the problems with the Everglades and they don’t want that.”

Bonefish Tarpon Trust is holding a symposium Nov. 7-8 in Dania Beach, and several Cuban fishermen and scientists have been invited to attend. Benson also plans to show a short documentary he is putting together on their trip to Cuba.

“Political borders mean nothing to the marlin, tuna, sharks and other marine life that travel freely through the Florida Straits, or to the corals, fish and lobsters whose babies drift to us from Cuba,” said Dan Whittle, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Cuba program director. “It is critical that all countries in the region, including Cuba and the U.S., work together to sustain the marine ecosystems we depend upon.”

By Tim O’Hara,
September 7, 2014

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