Paul Guzzo | The Tampa Tribune | October 11, 2014
TAMPA — Members of The Florida Aquarium’s fundraising arm will travel to Havana next week for meetings with the National Aquarium of Cuba just as the Cuban institution is expressing interest in a research partnership with a U.S. aquarium.
The Florida Aquarium Foundation in Tampa isn’t saying whether it hopes to be that partner or who will be traveling.
“This is an educational mission,” said Tom Hall, foundation chairman, who will be on the Tuesday-to-Sunday trip. “We want to talk about what we do, hear what they do, and then compare notes. I’ll know more when we get back.”
There is no collaboration now by aquariums in the two countries.
The National Aquarium of Cuba hopes to change that, said Jeffrey Boutwell, board member with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund in Washington, D.C. The nonprofit fund carries on the work of author Ernest Hemingway on a shared U.S.-Cuba approach to maritime resources.
Boutwell was part of a group that visited Cuba in September to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Hemingway’s first trip from Key West to Havana aboard his cabin cruiser.
Boutwell met then with representatives from the National Aquarium to learn what’s being done to protect the marlin, tuna and other game fish with which Hemingway is identified.
He asked Julio Baisre, vice director of the aquarium, if he’d consider partnering with U.S. aquariums.
“He was definitely interested,” Boutwell said. “I told him I’d reach out to the National Aquarium in Baltimore since I am from that city. I have not yet done so and did not know about Tampa’s trip, but I hope something positive comes from it.”
The aquariums in Tampa and Havana both focus on research as well as public exhibits.
A partnership would help protect the two nations’ shared marine resources, he said.
“Water does not know national borders or politics,” Boutwell said. “We can provide them information they need and vice versa.”
Currents, for example, could wash oil spilled in Cuban waters into Florida waters in less than a week.
That concern prompted an international oil spill agreement signed in March by five nations with Caribbean shorelines — Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica, the United States and Cuba.
The agreement circumvents the U.S. travel and trade embargo, which would have slowed the process of sharing resources to clean up a spill.
In June, former Sen. Bob Graham announced his intentions to lobby the federal government to take the next step in protecting Florida’s shores by providing Cuba access to top-of-the-line oil drilling equipment made in the U.S. but now banned from sale in the island nation.
Without the equipment, Graham said, Cuba would be more vulnerable to an oil drilling accident.
Marine biologists from throughout the U.S. are already collaborating with their counterparts in Cuba on research that could reverse the deterioration of coral reefs, prevent overfishing and lead to better understanding of the gulf ecosystem.
Those working for state-funded Florida universities, however, are barred by state law from such work.
Under Florida law, money that flows through a state university or institution — including grants from private foundations — cannot be used for travel to a nation on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba is on the list.
“There always seems to be political barriers keeping the two countries from properly working together,” Boutwell said. “Aquariums are private institutions so they can help bring the two nations together on these important issues.”