U.S.-Cuba scientific collaborations continue despite change in policy

Cuba’s biodiversity is at center of U.S.-Cuba scientific teams

HAVANA – Scientists from both Cuba and the U.S. have continued to work together despite President Donald Trump’s regression on U.S. relations with the Communist island.

Cuban coral reefs are the nursery grounds for some of the grouper, snapper and other marine species that the U.S. commercial fishing industry relies on.

Daniel Whittle runs the Cuba program for the Environmental Defense Fund, an American nonprofit conservation organization that has been working in Cuba for 17 years.

“We share migratory resources. We share sharks, sea turtles and fish,” Whittle said.

When it comes to biodiversity, Cuba is the ecological crown jewel of the Caribbean. Economic underdevelopment and the communist-run country’s restrictive laws have benefited the environment.

There are more than 4,000 tiny islands surrounding the main island that offer refuge. And there are plenty of endemic exotic species in the 211 protected areas that cover about 20 percent of the island.

There are more than 6,000 species of plants and around 1,400 species of mollusks. More than 80 percent of its reptiles are unique to the island. The Cuban trogon, the Cuban pygmy owl and the Cuban tody are birds that are not found anywhere else in the world.

The U.S.-Cuba scientific research teams that followed restoration of diplomatic relations continue to study the healthy ecosystems.

Among the new partnerships is a deal between the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment.

The partnerships are paying off with data. For instance, a joint expedition with technology provided by Florida Atlantic University recently found there was an alarming number of invasive lionfish.

“We found an incredible amount of diversity, especially in algae and sponges, and the reefs were in incredible health as well,” said Patricia Gonzalez, of the Marine Investigations Center at the University of Havana.

Another expedition that the museums of natural history in Havana and New York conducted at the Humboldt National Park about two years ago. It included a team of microbiologists, herpetologists, mammologists, arachnologists and ornithologists from both countries.

Wittle said the island has healthy coral reefs that biologists haven’t seen in the rest of the region in five decades. Scientists want to make sure that protecting Cuba’s coastal habitats remains a priority for both the tourism and commercial fishing industries.

Juan Jose Mena has been working in the fishing industry for more than a decade now. He believes climate change is to blame for the changes on marine ecosystems. Tarpon and bonefish have been impacted. Mena said Cuban fishermen are also collaborating with the scientists.

“The environment is truly the backbone for economic development,” Whittle said. “If you protect the environment, you can attract the tourists.”

See video here.

Hatzel Vela, local10.com

July 6, 2017

The Associated Press’ Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this report. 

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