Sharing experiences across the Yucatán Channel: A learning exchange on sustainable tourism and marine protected areas
By: Katie Thompson and Fernando Bretos
Over the past two years, tourism from the U.S. to Cuba has increased 36%, while tourism from other countries has also risen. The increasing demand, coupled with Cuba’s limited service and infrastructure capacity for tourism are posing never-before-seen challenges for Cuban tourism officials and planning agencies. Pressure is mounting on the country’s coastal environments.
This new reality places Cuba in a unique position to consider the future of its tourism industry. How can Cuba develop sustainable marine and coastal tourism that protects the clear waters, sandy beaches, and marine life on which that same industry depends? An opportunity exists for Cuba to learn from the experiences of neighboring Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) countries in an effort to minimize the effect of the all-inclusive mass tourism experience that is causing both environmental havoc and deterioration of the local social fabric in many places around the world.
In December of 2017, CubaMar brought a Cuban delegation to Cancun and Cozumel, Quintana Roo, Mexico to learn about sustainable tourism successes and shortfalls. Cuba and Cozumel have many similarities. In addition to being both islands, Cuba and Cozumel both rely on growing cruise ship visitation and dive tourism. For the exchange, we invited 11 Cuban delegates, mostly from the Cuban Centro Nacional de Areas Protegidas (CNAP) the government agency that manages all of Cuba’s 105 protected areas. They were joined by experts from the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program and a cadre of Mexican sustainable tourism experts. Our hosts in Mexico for the week-long exchange were the Municipio de Cozumel and the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI), an initiative made up of nonprofit and private sector representatives working to maintain sustainable tourism in the MAR that supports local communities while ensuring healthy marine and costal resources.
The week started in Cancun with a visit to the Isla Cancun tourism zone which is home to hundreds of large hotels, mostly all-inclusive beach resorts. Tourism in Quintana Roo, the home state of Cancun, has grown at a staggering rate from its beginning in the 1970s when it was only several fishing villages to nearly 10 million annual tourists reported in 2016. Today, Quintana Roo receives almost three times the tourism the entire nation of Cuba receives a year.
Our first visit was to the Torres Escenicas de Cancun, an elevator tower that provided a bird’s eye view of the entire panorama of the Cancun coastline. In plain view was how unchecked tourism development can quickly colonize a once pristine area. After the tower experience we walked on the hotel beaches which revealed high levels of erosion due to the construction on once vegetated dunes. Leading the site visit was Vicente Ferreyra of Sustentur, a local nonprofit that aims to encourage sustainable best practices in the region. A presentation by Gonzalo Merediz, director of Amigos de Si’an Ka’an provided statistics on the development the Mexican Caribbean and a snapshot of Si’an Ka’an, a nature preserve that is leading the way in promoting sustainable use of the areas coastal resources.
Next our delegation traveled to Cozumel where we first heard presentations by organizations working on sustainable tourism in the region. The director of MARTI, Sarah Connor, presented about some of MARTI’s projects to promote collaboration between the private, nonprofit, and government sectors of the MAR region in order to lessen the potential negative impacts of the tourism industry on the reefs. Participants heard from the Municipio de Cozumel and the German Corporation for International Cooperation about their study on the effects of the cruise tourism industry in Cozumel.
After the presentations, we visited two sites, the Puerta Maya cruise terminal and the Iberostar Hotel. Cozumel receives a staggering 4 million cruise tourists per year and Puerta Maya receives most of those. By visiting the terminal during peak hours when three cruise ships were unloading passengers, our Cuban delegation was able to witness firsthand how large-scale cruise tourism can monopolize the clientele while preventing economic benefits to local communities outside of the facility. It is our hope that Cuba will avoid this type of large scale cruise tourism. This will require hard negotiating from the Cuban government to ensure their leverage is never compromised.
After our visit to Puerta Maya we visited the Iberostar Cozumel Hotel, which is conducting voluntary best practices to ensure sustainability in its facility. It recycles wastewater, landscapes with native vegetation and ensures its guests use the hotel’s resources smartly. To finish the day, we heard from Rosendo Martínez from the Cuban Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of the Environment, about a successful small-scale tourism project near Cuba’s Bay of Pigs.
The last day we heard presentations by representatives of Mexico’s Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP), specifically the director of Parque Nacional de Arrecifes de Cozumel and the regional director for the Yucatan Peninsula and Caribbean. Finally, some participants went for a dive in the Parque Nacional de Arrecifes de Cozumel to see first-hand the coral reef we had talked about all week.
Overall, it was clear participants from all countries learned from each other and formed lasting professional connections. The Cuban delegation in particular brought back lessons learned from decades of experience in Quintana Roo. We hope to conduct additional phases of the exchange in the future to continue the sharing of experiences and knowledge between Cuba and Mexico.
Thank you to the Summit Foundation for the support to implement the exchange and to our generous hosts in Cozumel--it would not have been possible without you!
Photos by: Shireen Rahimi, Katie Thompson, and Fernando Bretos
As director of CubaMar, I have a dream job working on marine conservation in Cuba. Cuba, with its 3,000 miles of coastline, is the largest island in the Caribbean. It is also the country my parents emigrated from in 1961 as teenagers meaning that Cuba is also something of a home. My passion to study and conserve Cuba’s and the surrounding region’s marine environments is what motivates my work today. One field of research that is dear to me is the study of sea turtles.
Once I saw my first female green turtle nesting turtle on a beach in 2002, I fell in love with these sentinel creatures who over 200 million years ago left their comfy lives on land to navigate the oceans in search of food, mates and every year or two, a beach to lay their eggs. And that’s only the females. Male turtles live their life at sea, which makes them even more difficult to study. But the females offer us an exclusive glimpse into the behavior and physiology of these highly evolved reptiles.
The island’s abundance of beach habitat and ample foraging grounds, especially on its southern platform, make it a hotbed for sea turtle nesting and foraging. Primarily, three species of turtle nest and feed in Cuban waters: green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles. In 2000, I came across a unique citizen science project that is gathering critical information about sea turtles in Guanahacabibes National Park in extreme western Cuba. Initiated in 1998 by the renowned marine scientist, Dr. María Elena Ibarra Martín, this project has engaged University of Havana students in patrolling Guanahacabibes’ beaches for nesting activity. It has become the largest ongoing nest-monitoring project in Cuba. University of Havana students spend two-week shifts at the park walking the length of seven beaches looking for nesting activity.
Working on this project has been one of the highlights of my career. In addition to supporting the project, one of my tasks has been to co-host regular international Cuban sea turtle workshops. The first four workshops (2002, 2005, 2009, 2013) focused on different research and conservation objectives. The 2002 workshop was devoted to advancing tagging efforts, while the 2005 workshop explored ways to engage fishing communities near Guanahacabibes National Park in protecting turtles for tourism purposes rather than for their value on a plate. The 2009 workshop took place at the Isle of Youth and was dedicated to working with fishermen throughout Cuba in reducing turtle bycatch. Our 2013 workshop at Guanahacabibes National Park explored ways to study turtles in their ocean habitat as opposed to solely on beaches. Each of the four workshops has brought together the Cuban research community and provided a formal setting to take stock of Cuban sea turtle science and chart the course forward.
Most recently in August, sea turtle scientists from Cuba and the U.S. gathered for the 5th International Workshop on Cuban Sea Turtle Research and Conservation in Cayo Largo, Cuba. Cayo Largo is the most important nesting site in Cuba with an average of 2,000 green and loggerhead nests per year on approximately 15 km of beach. Cayo Largo is also an important tourism site with five all inclusive hotels operating within walking distance of regular active nesting activity. Walking on the beaches at night during the nesting season involves taking very careful steps not to step on a nest.
The objective of our workshop was to conceive a plan to restore regular research efforts during the nesting season, organize satellite tracking efforts on the island and develop a permanent sea turtle rehabilitation program in Cuba to address turtles adversely impacted by incidental bycatch, disease (particularly fibropalliloma tumors) and turtle strandings.
Sadly, tourism to Cayo Largo, which mostly consists of Canadian and Italian beachgoers, does not take advantage of the beautiful natural denizens of the island. While there is a rescue center that organizes the public release of hatchlings (an activity that is shunned upon by turtle scientists) from nests laid in areas threatened by tourism, there is no ethic to encourage tourism that offers unique views of these creatures. In essence the island needs more tourism, especially in the summer nesting season, which coincides with the lowest tourist season, to create incentives for the five hotels operating on the island to care more about their conservation.
The consensus decision at the workshop was to secure funding to support three trips to Cayo Largo (June, July and August 2018), whereby Cuban scientists and volunteers will patrol beaches and collect nesting and hatchling data. Also, Cuba lacks a wildlife rehabilitation center whereby diseased turtles or those caught incidentally by fishers can be treated and returned to the wild. At our workshops we identified a wildlife veterinarian named Eddy García, who will undergo training in Florida in January 2018. There Mr. Garcia, a trained veterinarian and manatee biologist, will learn firsthand from staff of a wildlife rehabilitation program as they treat injured turtles in Tampa Bay.
Our 5th workshop was a great success and we look forward to creating this new program at Cayo Largo, Cuba’s most important sea turtle nesting site. This project is just one piece of CubaMar's dedication to sea turtle conservation in Cuba.
UPDATE: Unfortunately a week after our workshop, Hurricane Irma ravaged the north coast of Cuba as a category five storm. Not only did Eddy García lose his house in Santa Clara but two of the research institutions I work with here badly damaged. Please consider donating toward their recovery here.
By Daria Siciliano, Ph.D., CubaMar Chief Scientist
Mitigation efforts for the lionfish invasion in the Caribbean depend on local overall reef health and resiliency, and the initial lionfish densities. In collaboration with colleagues at the Acuario Nacional de Cuba (ANC), and the Parque Nacional de Guanahacabibes (GNP), we are exploring the necessary removal effort required to mitigate declines of native species due to lionfish in western Cuba, at the GNP’s marine reserve off of Maria La Gorda.
Recently scientists studying other Caribbean locations have found that complete eradication of lionfish is not necessary for native species recovery, and that culling of lionfish may be a practical solution to mitigate their impacts. We set up to determine what is the minimum effort needed to achieve specific removal targets at this location. Determining the minimum effort needed is particularly important in Cuba, a country with uniquely limited resources. And it is particularly important for the Guanahacabibes National park marine protected area, which has the highest densities of lionfish in all of Cuba. It is also a site with considerable historical data, where lionfish, native fish densities and other ecological indicators have been estimated at regular intervals for the past two decades, with more frequent surveys during the last 7 years.
So in August 2017, I joined my colleagues at the Acuario Nacional, led by Pedro Chevalier, Dorka Cobian, the PNG biologist in charge of all research and monitoring at the marine park, plus staff from the Instituto de Oceanologia, in a research expedition aimed at understanding the minimum catch effort for lionfish required in the Guanahacabibes MPA. In addition to lionfish removals, we carried out fish surveys using 6 transects of 50m, surveying all fish including lionfish, with estimates of fish size and biomass for both the native fish and invasive lionfish. Over the course of one week, our team of 8 scientists plus dive staff conducted a total of 15 dives on the fore reef and reef edge, at sites ranging between 10 and 25m depth. At each location, two fish surveyors (Pedro Chevalier and Dorka Cobian) would lay out three 50m transects in opposite directions (6 linear transects each) along the reef edge, and estimate abundance and size of all native fish along a 2m belt centered on the transect (1m on each side). After the fish surveyors got a head start on the transect, the lionfish hunters (myself, Hansel Caballero, Victor Isla and Lorena Gonzalez) would start scouring the reef, covering the entire length of the 150m transects, the width of the reef, and up to a depth of 25m to remove all lionfish in sight. We used spear poles (manufactured by REEF) and Zookeper Lionfish containment devices (also manufactured by REEF ) to store the animals following capture. Once back on the boat, the specimens were dissected for stomach analysis.
In addition to lionfish, during the August 2017 expedition was also dedicated to restoring coral, focusing on Acropora cervicornis, a project started by our ANC colleagues in 2015. When we first arrived at Maria La Gorda, back at the hotel we started assembling new coral trees from PVC material with floaters and weights, so we could anchor each tree to the substrate once in the water. On our first dive, we reached a sandy plain in waters about 5-8m depth, the location of the A. cervicornis plantings from March 2017, and planted the new trees next to the existing ones. We then spent a good amount of the dive cleaning with steel brushes the existing trees, to get them free of algae, hydrozoans, mollusks and other epiphytes that had colonized the tree structure since the March plantings. Everyone got stung by the floating hydrozoans that resulted, and we all had rashes on our faces and other bare skin for the rest of the week!
Later in the week we went to the location of older A. cervicornis trees (planted in 2015) which had grown considerably (about 10-25 cm), and cut fragments from them, divided them in two different sizes, and collected them in two plastic crates. With the larger fragments, we moved to the adjacent reef where we planted them using cement contained in… condoms (seems a favorite tool of Cuban marine researchers – see section on coral coring…!), which we used to pour cement on the base of the coral fragments to attach them to the reef. On successive dives, we took the smaller fragments and hanged them on the new trees we had planted, after fitting them to host the coral fragments. Again we used a lot of the dive to clean the older trees of epiphytes, this time taking ample care to cover each inch of our skin that might have been exposed.
Overall the expedition was a great success. Thank you to my colleagues at ANC, PNG, and all of the super helpful staff of the Centro Internacional de Buceo Maria la Gorda, particularly Rafael Valdez, who took great care of us on the boat and in the water!
By: Shireen Rahimi
I was lying on my back across the seat of the taxi, slowly savoring a short story as we hurtled eastward along the freeway back to Havana. I spaced out in the middle of my reading, staring at the car ceiling, when I noticed our driver pulling over to the side of the road—the car had overheated. I stepped out into the blazing midday sun, eyes squinting, and leaned against the tired car, waiting for the car to cool. After three rounds of frantically pushing the car down the flat, barren freeway, it jump started and we were on our way. It was the perfect ending to my first field expedition in Cuba: adversity, perseverance, ingenuity, and—eventually—a solution.
As a PhD student at the University of Miami’s Abess Center, and in partnership with The Ocean Foundation’s Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program, I am doing my doctoral research on a coral reef ecosystem in western Cuba. I decided to focus on a Cuban reef for several reasons. The country has been relatively successful in maintaining the integrity of its marine ecosystems thanks to low levels of development, some reefs’ uniquely stable ecosystem dynamics despite climate change, and its extensive (although inconsistently enforced) National System of Protected Areas. However, improved relations between the Cuban and U.S. governments have already led to increased tourism, and experts are expecting more coastal development and up to 10 million tourists visiting the island per year in the near future. The country’s reefs—which support Cuba’s tourism economy, and also serve as important sources of genetic diversity for reefs across the region—are highly vulnerable to these sociopolitical and environmental changes. For my project, I will be looking at how these external forces are currently impacting coastal ecosystems in Guanahacabibes, a national park on the western tip of the island. The goal of this project is to understand how these tourism-based impacts can be managed to make sure Guanahacabibes does not suffer the all-too-common fate of beautiful, coastal areas left degraded and spoiled by unregulated tourism.
In order to understand these impacts, I first had to become familiar with my field site. So, along with my co-advisor Dr. Daria Siciliano of CubaMar, I set out on a 4-hour long, cross country journey from the country’s capital to the remote coast of Guanahacabibes National Park. I had been to Havana twice before, but the roads out of the capital and through Pinar del Rio, lined with tobacco fields, dotted with horse drawn carts, and back dropped by lush, green, plateaued mountains left me wide-eyed and nostalgic for a past I never even knew.
Finally, we entered the park, and I realized first-hand why a study of tourism impacts on this site made sense. Guanahacabibes is a tourist’s dream: one convenient road connects a network of foot trails, winding through coastal tropical forests, teeming with iguanas and over 170 species of birds, leading to white sand beaches, native turtle nesting grounds, crystal clear waters, and beautiful coral reefs. Its most prized attraction, the Maria la Gorda dive resort, lies toward the eastern end of the park. It sits on a slightly protected part of the Bahia de Corrientes, and hosts tourist activities such as cruise ship landings, SCUBA diving and snorkeling, boating, and trail excursions.
For my project, I will be collecting and analyzing data on these tourist activities to determine how they are impacting the area, and at what levels they should be limited. In order to do this, I first need to figure out what factors are impacting these ecosystems the most. Are SCUBA divers trampling coral? Are boats carelessly dropping their anchors, leaving gaping holes in the reef? Are cruise passengers destroying native dune vegetation during their beach parties? As a first step, I presented our ideas for my dissertation research to a group of park managers and rangers, including our close colleague and park manager Dr. Dorka Cobián Rojas, to figure out what impacts we should focus on measuring. After a productive hour and a half of discussion, we left with a long list of important factors to consider, which we are currently working on whittling down. Once we have a short list of factors, we can figure out what data we will need, and how these data will be used to estimate how many tourists the site can accommodate before it becomes significantly degraded, known as the site’s carrying capacity. Estimating carrying capacity is important because, unlike sites in the Florida Keys or Cancun, Guanahacabibes has not yet seen huge impacts from tourism, and a carrying capacity measurement could allow us to preemptively manage these reefs.
On our second day on site, Dr. Siciliano, Dr. Cobián Rojas, and I boarded the resort’s dive boat to check out one of Maria La Gorda’s famously rugose reefs, Yemaya. The waters around the boat shone a transparent shade of turquoise, clear like distorted glass. I could see all the way to the white sandy bottom, and I quickly realized how much cleaner these waters were compared to those near my home in Miami. The boat set out in haste and I strained to listen as our dive guide yelled our dive plan over the roar of the engines in thick Cuban Spanish. We geared up and jumped in. As we descended through the shallow waters, the sun beamed rays through the water, illuminating tiny transparent pelagic animals, dancing in the light in front of my eyes. We dropped down sixty feet to the brightly colored reef surface: groupers wove through sponges, gorgonians swayed back and forth, and large schools of small fish swam by without a care.
We went through a gaping hole in the surface of the reef, which quickly became a narrow crevice, lined with rare black coral and sponges of all shapes and colors. I eventually saw a narrow strip of blue in the distance and eagerly swam towards it, emerging from the massive walls of the crevice onto the cliff face of the reef tract, looking out into infinite amounts of water in all directions—a deep, sapphire blue abyss of pure ocean. I felt dizzy, almost hypnotized, as my eyes strained to register the enormous expanse. Then, all at once, I took a deep breath and snapped myself out of it—the clock was ticking, and there was work to be done.
Photos by Dorka Cobián Rojas
Written by: CubaMar Program Coordinator Katie Thompson
Photos by: Natalie Kraft
Since the day I started working for CubaMar, everyone was always talking about Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen). Jardines de la Reina National Park is the largest marine reserve in the Caribbean at 840 miles squared and is home to large swaths of mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass. It’s known as the “Galapagos of the Caribbean” or the “Jewel of the Caribbean”. It’s home to marine life seen nowhere else in the Caribbean. And the story goes that Christopher Columbus named Jardines in honor the Queen of Spain—its beauty was fit for a queen!
Since its founding, CubaMar has conducted research cruises with our Cuban partners to study the richness of Jardines’ marine life. Fernando (CubaMar director) and Daria (CubaMar Lead Scientist) have always returned from these trips amazed and with a renewed motivation for our conservation work. In a way, visiting Jardines is like going back in time, especially today when roughly 90% of fish biomass has been removed from the average Caribbean reef (Valdivia et al. 2017). Fortunately, Jardines is an above average reef and is estimated to have the highest fish biomass in the Caribbean.
Jardines is one of the most well enforced protected areas in the region and has a unique partnership with a SCUBA diving and fly-fishing operation that brings tourists to the park. Its remoteness is another key factor in its protection—it’s located 60 miles south of Cuba mainland (about a 5 hour boat ride). The park has been protected from large-scale fishing since it was established in 1996 and only 1000 divers and 500 fly fishers are allowed to visit each year. This cap on visitors limits the impact of tourism, and as demand continues to rise so does the price to visit. I was wondering if I would every be able to see Jardines for myself…
Then it happened! In February 2017 I was part of research cruise where CubaMar partnered with Harte Research Institute to identify potential research sites and develop future research collaborations with our Cuban partners.
Even given all that I had heard about Jardines, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw on the many dives during the weeklong trip. In Cuba, like in other parts of the Caribbean, there are not many large fish at all because they have been overfished, but in Jardines, there were many. And the sharks! I had never seen so many sharks. It was also my first time seeing a sea turtle while diving in Cuba. The coral looked much healthier in Jardines than any other place I had seen in Cuba. I came up from every dive absolutely amazed. The mangroves were also a sight to see. Their importance in the region’s marine ecosystems became immediately clear seeing the large schools of juvenile fish hiding among the roots.
After experiencing Jardines, my perspective has changed. Now I understand how Cuban marine life was, what it could be (even thought I'm sure Jardines has also changed). I have a renewed sense of purpose for my work. I’m also hopeful. The same study that found that 90% of fish biomass has been removed from the Caribbean showed that marine reserves have greater fish biomass than unprotected sites. Meaning local protection can restore fish communities if well implemented!
My trip to Jardines shows how important perspective is in an ocean that is changing so quickly. We (scientists, conservationists, practitioners, citizens) need to be aware of what we are aiming for when we embark on this journey to save the world's oceans--a difficult but not impossible task if we work together.
Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program (CubaMar), a Project of The Ocean Foundation, supports collaborative scientific research between Cuba, the U.S. and neighboring countries, to advance and inform marine conservation policy efforts in Cuba and the Wider Caribbean
By Michele Heller
This past June, my co-worker and I set off into the unknown that is Cuba, with Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program (CubaMar). At the time we were affiliated with The Ocean Foundation (CubaMar is a project of TOF) and were stoked to get out of the office and get our hands dirty. We had a general idea of our itinerary, which consisted of staying in Old Havana for a couple of days and then heading south to Isla de la Juventud, (The Island of Youth) to visit a remote village at the Southern tip called Cocodrilo. This one horse town (OK, fine, three horse town) was established over a 100 years ago by fishers from the Cayman Islands, and the last few direct descendants still speak English today.
Our mission was to assist a small group of conservationists in Cocodrilo, led by our hosts in the village, Reinaldo and Reynaldo (there was some confusion upon first arriving), that are leading the charge to restore the endangered staghorn coral and to develop a marine conservation voluntourism program. As the first of, hopefully, many tourists to come, we timed the trip so that we would be present during the town’s annual Sea Turtle Festival and spent our days exploring the watery realm of Cocodrilo. But first – to get to there!
The journey to Cocodrillo was quite an eventful one! Flying domestically in Cuba is not for the faint of heart and after buying additional tickets on top of the ones we had already purchased and hiring a “fixer” (who may or may not have bribed airline officials), we touched down on Juventud 1.5 days later than we were supposed to. Another 3 hour drive down a bumpy jungle road swarming with giant coconut crabs and we had reached our destination in the middle of the night and rendezvoused with the rest of our group. We awoke that first morning to the sound of roosters calling to the sun rising over the jungle and casting it’s light on a geologists dream: an entire coastline made of fossilized coral reef. Let the adventures begin!
We spent about 5 days snorkeling, free diving and SCUBA diving on Cocodrilo's reefs and in and out of caves along the coastline. Although most of the big fish, sharks and sea turtles have been fished out, the reefs were healthy and full of life, albeit small wonders that require a patient eye. We saw plenty of moray eels, squid, and most wondrous of all, the endangered staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis). Local community members have established a coral restoration nursery and program that they were diligently monitoring and regularly cleaning of debris.
This little town has a lot of spirit and character, and we got to witness that during the Sea Turtle Festival. During the day, the festival focused on the town’s school children. The community leaders created an atmosphere of learning and exploration through videos highlighting the local reefs, games that taught the importance of protecting sea turtles and not fishing for them, and positive reinforcement of the idea of growing up to be environmental stewards and caring for their ocean. Our group helped with decorations, setting up, supplying generously donated brand new school supplies for the kids! It was a wonderful event to witness and to be a part of and I’m so excited to see what this generation of citizen scientists will accomplish.
Cocodrilo is unlike anywhere you’ve ever been and I highly recommend visiting. There is so much potential for the town’s conservation programs, and the fact that this little one horse town (ok fine, three horse town) has a coral restoration program and plans to establish a campus for visitors with classroom and bunks, is a testament to the spirit of this community and their relationship with the ocean.
Cuba is an incredibly special place to visit and it’s hard to describe one's experience. The beauty of the country, the people, and vibrant culture can be overshadowed sometimes by a roiling history of revolution and frequent moments lacking any rhyme or reason, but it’s there if you look close enough.
Written by: Alexandra Puritz, M.S. Candidate, Marine Ecosystems & Society, University of Miami's Rosentiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science
This past June, I participated on a CubaMar expedition to Cuba’s Isle of Youth. As a graduate student at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, I am collaborating with CubaMar to research marine protected areas (MPAs) in Cuba. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, and its shores are comprised of diverse marine ecosystems including coral reefs and seagrass beds. To protect these marine environments, Cuba has developed an extensive national network of MPAs. The main objective of our journey was to learn about and participate in the community-based conservation projects taking place in Cocodrilo. Cocodrilo is a remote fishing town located on the southern coast of the island within a Protected Area for Managed resources and it is the closest community to Punta Frances National Park, which is an MPA located off the southwestern tip of the island.
The Isle of Youth is a very unique island. Isolated from mainland Cuba, the Isle of Youth seems like an almost forgotten place. On the cobblestone streets of Nueva Gerona, the island’s provincial capital, you are more likely to see horse-drawn carriages or motorcycles than cars. The history of the Isle of Youth reads like a historical adventure novel. The island’s past visitors include Christopher Columbus, Spanish colonists, pirates, and American settlers. Most notably, in 1953 Fidel and Raul Castro were imprisoned by then-president Gerardo Machado on the island’s jail, called Presidio Modelo, which is now a museum. Following the Cuban Revolution, Castro renamed the island the Isle of Youth, which had previously been called the Isle of Pines. The new name commemorated his initiative to turn the island into an international destination for young people to learn about the ideals of socialism. Dozens of boarding schools were built across the island for students from all over the world to attend. However, during Cuba’s economic depression known as the ‘Special Period’ following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the schools were shut down. To this day, when driving around the northwestern portion of the island, you can’t help but notice these abandoned and ominous Soviet-looking buildings. For an in-depth read on the island’s history, check out this Washington Post article.
The coastal town of Cocodrilo can be reached by a roughly 2-hour taxi ride or a 4-hour public bus ride from Nueva Gerona. In order to enter through the protected area, we needed to receive special permits from the Cuban Government and had to cross through a military checkpoint. Once through the checkpoint, as the road winds its way through the Lanier Swamp it becomes extremely bumpy and overpopulated with enormous coconut crabs. At the end of our trip when we passed back through this military checkpoint, young soldiers inspected our bags to make sure nobody illegally took turtle shell out of the protected area.
The Cocodrilo community was founded by Cayman turtle fishermen in the early 1900s, and to this day the Cayman influence remains. The houses have a Cayman architectural style and it was a surprise to be greeted in English by a woman whose ancestors were among the original founders of the town. Fishing is still the main livelihood for the majority of the residents, although in 2008 the Cuban Government banned the sea turtle fishery.
During our stay in Cocodrilo, our hosts El Nene and Rey taught us about their marine conservation efforts in the community. According to them, Cocodrilo’s coastal ecosystems can be considered the town’s most valuable assets, and they hope to encourage young people to conserve their marine resources. In particular, they hope to promote non-extractive ways to use these resources, such as through education and ecotourism. One of their current projects is a coral restoration nursery for staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), which is an endangered coral species. In addition, our group participated in a youth-focused sea turtle festival led by the town’s leaders, which encouraged a sense of pride in conserving Cuba’s sea turtle populations. Children played games that taught them values relating to conservation, such as a paper version of Go Fish where they could only take fish above a certain size limit. Ultimately, projects such as these demonstrate the ways in which communities can be engaged in non-extractive ways of appreciating their marine resources. A longer-term goal for Cocodrilo’s conservationists is for the town to develop a niche in ecotourism, which would benefit both the environment and the community by providing an economic alternative to fishing and incentivizing conservation.
To learn more about Cocodrilo and future volunteer opportunities for supporting their environmental education initiatives, visit: http://www.cubamar.org/volunteer-in-cocodrilo.html.
Daria Siciliano, PhD, CubaMar, The Ocean Foundation
At the end of June I had the pleasure and privilege to attend the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS), the premier conference for coral reef scientists from all over the world held every four years. I attended my first ICRS presenting as a PhD student in October 2000 in Bali, Indonesia. I was then a wide-eyed grad student hungry to fulfill my curiosity of all things coral reefs – and that first ICRS conference allowed me to soak it all in and fill my mind with many more questions to investigate in the years to come. It consolidated my career path like no other professional meeting during my graduate school years, even including the 10th ICRS I attended four years later in Okinawa. The Bali meeting -the people I met there, what I learned- is when it became clear to me that studying coral reefs for the rest of my life would indeed be the most fulfilling profession. Fast forward 16 years, and I am living that dream to the fullest, as a coral reef ecologist for the Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program (CubaMar, http://www.cubamar.org/) of The Ocean Foundation. I am at the same time leveraging the amazing laboratory and analytical resources of the Institute of Marine Sciences of the University of California Santa Cruz, as an associate researcher, to carry out the lab work needed for our investigations on Cuban coral reefs.
The ICRS meeting last month, held in Honolulu, Hawaii, was also a bit of a homecoming. Prior to devoting myself to the relatively understudied and endlessly fascinating coral reefs of Cuba, I spent more than 15 years studying Pacific coral reefs. Many of those years were dedicated to exploring the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands archipelago, now called the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the boundaries of which the Pew Charitable Trust is currently petitioning for an expansion. They were in fact gathering signatures for this endeavor at the ICRS meeting last month (https://www.facebook.com/ExpandPMNM/). I signed their petition enthusiastically, and also had a chance to reminisce about many underwater adventures in that fascinating archipelago with former colleagues, collaborators and friends I ran into at the conference. Some I hadn’t seen for a decade or more, some were still based in Hawaii, others had moved on, and it was just great to catch up with everyone.
With 14 concurrent sessions from 8am to well past 6pm featuring back-to-back talks on topics ranging from geology and paleoecology of coral reefs to coral reproduction to coral genomics, I spent ample time before each day planning my schedule to maximize the number of talks I could attend. Each night I plotted the next day’s itinerary carefully, estimating the time it would take me to walk from one session hall to the other, sometimes at the opposite end of the Hawaii Convention center, determining which was the shortest route there… (I am after all a scientist). Luckily the ICRS organizers put out a conference app to facilitate our planning. And I indeed managed to attend many interesting presentations as I had planned - more on this below. But what often messed up my careful plan was the simple fact that these large meetings are as much about running into old and new colleagues walking from one talk to the next, and taking the time to catch up, as it is to actually hear the scheduled presentations. And so we did. With my colleague Fernando Bretos, Director of CubaMar and the person who has worked the longest in the US on bridging the gap between Cuban and American coral reef science and study the two countries’ shared marine resources, we had many fruitful meetings, many of them unplanned. We met with Cuban colleagues we brought to the meeting, as well as with coral restoration start-up enthusiasts interested in work in Cuba (yes, such a start-up actually exists! Check it out: http://www.coralvita.co/), plus grad students we are mentoring, and seasoned coral reef scientists from the Caribbean and Pacific circles interested in collaborating. These meetings ended up being some of the highlight of the conference. But of course there were tons of interesting talks. On the first day of the conference, I mostly stuck around the biogeochemistry and paleoecology sessions, given that one of our current research lines at CubaMar is the reconstruction of past climate and anthropogenic input to Cuban coral reefs using geochemical techniques on coral cores (http://www.cubamar.org/paleoclimate-reconstructions-in-cuba-inferred-from-coral-core-aragonite.html). But I did manage to make it to a talk that day on the pollution from personal care products such as sunscreen lotions and soaps. The presentation went deep into the chemistry and toxicology of common use products, such as oxybenzone from sunscreens, and demonstrating the toxic effects they have on coral, sea urchin embryos, and larvae of fish and shrimp. I learned that the pollution stems not just from the products washing off from our skin as we bathe in the ocean, but especially from what we absorb through the skin and excrete in urine, eventually making their way to the reef. I’ve known about this issue for years, but it was the first time I actually saw the toxicology data for corals and other reef organisms - it was quite sobering.
One of the dominant themes of the conference was the unprecedented global coral bleaching event that the world’s reefs are currently experiencing. The current episode of coral bleaching started in mid-2014, making it the longest and most widespread coral bleaching event on record, as NOAA declared. Regionally, it has affected the Great Barrier Reef to an unprecedented level as well. Terry Hughes from James Cook University in Australia presented very recent analyses on the mass bleaching event for the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) that occurred earlier this year. Severe and widespread bleaching occurred in Australia as a result of the summer sea surface (SSF) temperatures from February to April 2016. The resulting mass bleaching event hit the remote northern sector of the GBR the hardest: from aerial surveys complemented and corroborated by underwater surveys, Dr. Hughes determined that 81% of the reefs in the remote Northern sector of the GBR have been severely bleached, with only 1% escaping untouched. In the Central and Southern sector the severely bleached reefs represented 33% and 1% respectively. The 2016 mass bleaching event is the third occurring on the GBR (previous ones happened in 1998 and 2002), but it is by far the most severe: hundreds of reefs have bleached for the first time in 2016. During the two previous mass bleaching events, the remote and pristine Northern GBR was spared and considered to be a refugium for bleaching, with its many large, long-lived coral colonies – but it’s clearly not the case today, and many of those long-lived colonies have been lost. Due to these losses “the Northern GBR will not look like it did in February 2016 any more in our lifetimes” said Hughes. Why was the Southern sector of the GBR spared this year? Dr. Hughes showed a slide detailing the path of cyclone Winston in February 2016 (the same that swept through Fiji and wreaked havoc there): it landed on the southern GBR and brought the SST down considerably there, thereby mitigating the bleaching effects. To this Dr. Hughes added sarcastically: “We used to worry about cyclones on reefs, now we hope for them!” Dr. Hughes concluded with more discouraging news: the two lessons learned from the third mass bleaching event on the GBR is that local management doesn’t ameliorate bleaching; and that local interventions may help foster (partial) recovery, but stressed that reefs simply cannot be “climate-proofed”. Finally, he reminded us that we have already entered an era when the return time of mass bleaching caused by global warming is shorter than the recovery time of long-lived coral assemblages. Thus the GBR has changed forever. Sigh.
In a more uplifting talk later in the week, Dr. Jeremy Jackson reported on results from analyses spanning from 1970 to 2012 from the wider Caribbean, and determined instead that local stressors trump global stressors in this region… these results support the hypothesis that local protections can increase reef resilience in the short term pending global action on climate change. In his plenary talk, Dr. Peter Mumby of the University of Queensland reminded us about the “subtlety” in coral reefs. The cumulative effects of multiple stressors are reducing the diversity of reef environments, so that management interventions are targeted at reefs that no longer differ dramatically. Management actions have to adapt to said subtlety in coral reefs.
By Friday, the last day of the conference, I noticed that there were still thousands of people at the conference. Usually, by day 4 or 5 of any 5-day conference, lots of people start to drop out, some getting a head start to their long trips home, others preferring to take their last opportunity to check out a local MPA or surf spot. But at this conference attendance remained strong. The lionfish session on Friday was still pretty well attended. I was pleased to realize that the biotic resistance hypothesis, whereby native predators, by either competition or predation or both, are capable of maintaining the lionfish invasion in check, is still being actively debated. That’s what we tested in Jardines de la Reina MPA in southern Cuba during the summer of 2014 (http://www.cubamar.org/pez-leoacuten-the-lionfish-invasion-mitigation-project.html). It is interesting to learn it is still a timely question.
Compared to the first ICRS meeting I was able to attend in Bali in 2000, the 13th ICRS was equally as inspiring, but in a different way. Some of the most inspiring moments of this conference personally happened when I would run into some of the “elders” of coral reef science, who were prominent or plenary speakers at the 9th ICRS in Bali, and today I could still see a twinkle in their eye as they talked about their favorite corals, fish, MPAs, zooxanthellae, or the most recent El Niño. Some well past retirement age… but still having so much fun studying coral reefs. Who would want to do anything else?!
Written by: Katie Thompson, CubaMar Program Coordinator
What can fishers from Madagascar and Mexico learn from each other? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot! Last week I was invited to attend a fisheries learning exchange in Baja California, Mexico organized by Blue Ventures, ProNatura, and SmartFish. The exchange brought three fishers from Madagascar to Mexico with the objective of learning how fishers from Bahía de Los Angeles in the Gulf of California manage their octopus fisheries. The fishers from Madagascar also got a chance to share how successful their community octopus fishery closures have been in Southwest Madagascar.
During the exchange we toured a fish market in Ensenada, saw a mussel and oyster farm off the Pacific coast, got a close up look at how fishers from Bahía de Los Angeles fish for octopus, attended a local fishers’ meeting, and saw how the octopus is processed and shipped. The fishers from Madagascar were eager to learn more about the octopus traps used by Mexican fishers (in Madagascar they use spears) and the Mexican fishers were surprised to learn about the important role women play in the Madagascar octopus fisheries (women make up about 70% of the octopus fishers in Southwest Madagascar, where in Bahía de los Angeles its almost 0%). Throughout the entire week it was clear participants were learning a lot from each other, even though most conversations required multiple translations (Malagasy to French to Spanish and sometimes English). It’s amazing how much knowledge can be gained just by getting in-person, hands-on experience.
My main interest in fisheries learning exchanges comes from a research perspective. Exchanges were the topic of my master’s thesis and I’ve been able to continue research and implementation of exchanges through my work at CubaMar. The research is part of an effort started at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center a few years ago, of which CubaMar’s Director Fernando Bretos is also a part. CubaMar has used exchanges in the past, specifically in our sea turtle research and conservation work. Check out our recent paper in Marine Policy on an exchange CubaMar organized on sea turtle conservation!
After 55 years of political isolation, change is afoot in relations between the US and Cuba. After the December 17, 2014 announcement by Presidents Barrack Obama and Raul Castro to normalize relations between the US and Cuba, CubaMar has found itself in a unique position to advance joint marine research between our countries. Yet even before the 2014 announcement, CubaMar had been hard at work building bridges through marine science through the Trinational Initiative (TNI), a collaborative platform founded by CubaMar, Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (HRI) and the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment in 2007. Through this platform, every year, scientists from the three countries that share the Gulf of Mexico (Cuba, Mexico and USA) have met to discuss research plans and chart the course forward for targeted research projects that help solve some of the regional problems facing the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean. The last TNI meeting took place in November 2015 in Havana and had the largest participation since this platform was established in 2007.
The first week of May CubaMar, in collaboration with our partners at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and HRI, organized a workshop that brought together again members of the Coral Reef Working Group of the Trinational Initiative. Twenty-eight participants from the U.S., México, and Cuba representing 14 different government agencies, NGOs, and academic institutions met to define coral reef research priorities for the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean region. The workshop was hosted by UNAM and funded by HRI and CubaMar.
This was an exciting meeting because it was the first meeting of any of the Trinational Initiative working groups (there are six of them) outside of the larger annual Trinational Initiative workshop. The idea came about during the last TNI meeting in November when members of the Coral Reef Group realized that the interest, the ideas, and the projects generated by a much larger group than previous years deserved more time to be discussed. Thus, shortly after returning from Havana, CubaMar and our colleagues at UNAM started planning the Mérida workshop to focus on developing research topics and specific objectives for coral reef research in the area.
The objectives of the workshop were:
The workshop opened with presentations on an overview of new coral reef research priorities in Cuba; a recent assessment of coral reefs at two MPAs in Cuba and Mexico; CONABIO’s information system of Mexico’s biodiversity; and an overview of the assessment methodology adopted by NOAA’s National Coral Reef Monitoring Program. There was also a panel on identifying funding opportunities for Trinational projects led by HRI, NOAA, and CubaMar.
Participants first brainstormed research priorities and gaps, then met in breakout groups where they developedspecific projects based on the expertise of the participants and the research gaps identified, and specifically discussed projects related to coral restoration, genetic and larval connectivity, population dynamics, ecosystems services valuations of coral reefs, human impacts on the reefs, and mapping of shallow and mesophotic reefs. Workshop participants are working together to further develop these projects and will get together again to update on the progress during the ICRS conference in Honolulu in June.
Outside of the workshop, participants enjoyed the wonderful food and unique sights of Mérida and México’s Yucatán Peninsula. Some participants even went night diving in a cenote!
Overall, the workshop was a resounding success. Participants were able to collectively develop Trinational coral reef projects and we believe this work will be particularly meaningful in the coming months and years, in light of the changes that normalizations of relations between Cuba and the US will bring about. We’re excited to see the Trinational Coral Reef Group’s next steps!
Written by: Katie Thompson, Fernando Bretos, and Daria Siciliano.