US, Cuba to work together to protect migratory fish

imagesWASHINGTON — Florida’s depleted sea life is about to get a boost from an unlikely neighbor — Cuba.

Cuban and U.S. officials have agreed to collaborate on protecting fish that migrate from Cuba to Florida, and to preserve coral reefs and ecosystems in both countries, drawing lessons from the Florida Keys and the Everglades.

Secretary of State John Kerry said this past week that he will go to Havana early next year to seal the deal.

The former Cold War adversaries are establishing a “sister sanctuary” relationship between the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Guanahacabibes National Park, a protected area on the west coast of Cuba teeming with fish and healthy coral.

Scientists from each country will address common threats facing reefs. Americans will gain access to Cuba’s flourishing fish and their habitat. Cuban scientists will get a firsthand look at marine management in the Keys and restoration of the Everglades, a depleted ecosystem recovering from urban sprawl and polluted runoff.

“Now you are seeing the two governments begin to collaborate in earnest in a way we just haven’t seen before. This is a real precedent-setting agreement,” said Daniel Whittle, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Cuba program, who met with officials and scientists from both countries.

He and other environmentalists hope the collaboration will help Cubans safeguard their pristine waters and marine life before the island is stressed by rapid economic development and a flood of tourists. Their success could have a direct effect on threatened fish populations in Florida.

“A lot of the species that commercial and recreational fishermen in Florida depend on — snappers and groupers especially — begin their life in Cuba,” Whittle said. “The currents carry the larvae on ocean currents through the Florida Straits into southeast Florida. So by protecting the habitats in Cuba, you are helping to rebuild fish populations in the U.S.”

The collaboration builds on discussions between U.S. and Cuban leaders to establish joint contingency plans to contain damage should there be an oil spill in Cuban waters.

Oil exploration off the Cuban coast raised fears in Florida and Congress that a spill, if it occurs, would produce a giant toxic slick that could reach South Florida shores, fouling reefs, inlets and beaches. Those fears faded when energy companies suspended the search, but Cuban leaders still hope to tap deposits believed to be off the north coast within 50 miles of the Florida Keys.

The oil drilling alarm raised awareness of the close connections linking Florida’s and Cuba’s environment. Birds fly, fish swim and ocean currents flow from the island to Florida, regardless of the U.S. trade embargo and conflicts between governments.

The sanctuary agreement extends to two offshore areas: the Flower Garden Banks, a national marine sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico about 100 miles from the Texas coast; and Banco de San Antonio, a similar underwater area 8 miles off the western tip of Cuba. More marine sanctuaries may be added to the agreement.

The Everglades, a “River of Grass” that flows into Florida Bay and out to sea, is part of the discussion because of its similarity to Cuban ecosystems.

“Symbolically it’s an important trust-builder,” Whittle said. “The practical effect is that it will significantly increase the scientific capacity in Cuba in these areas. Professionals will conduct joint research, inventory marine life and habitat, identify species that migrate between the U.S. and Cuba and their nurseries.

“It shines a light on the fact that if Cuba protects its natural habitat and marine life, it’s a benefit to us in the U.S.”

William E. Gibson, Sun Sentinel
October 10, 2015

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