By: Katie Thompson and Fernando Bretos
From whale sharks and sea turtles (Figures 1 & 2) to corals and lobsters, the connectivity within the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean is strong. Marine species depend on healthy environments throughout the region no matter the country and political boundaries. For this reason, it's important for the three countries surrounding the Gulf of Mexico (Cuba, US, Mexico) to collaborate on research, information sharing and training in the Gulf of Mexico. But how do three countries with different systems, priorities, and politics begin to work together to protect their shared resources? One way is through the Gulf of Mexico Marine Protected Area Network (RedGolfo). On May 25th, 2018, a group of scientists, marine protected area managers and policy experts from Cuba, Mexico and the United States gathered in Merida, Mexico to advance RedGolfo and make true trinational collaboration in the Gulf of Mexico a reality.
Where did RedGolfo come from? A history of collaboration in the Gulf
RedGolfo emerged out of the 2014 rapprochement between Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro. After 55 years of political deadlock the leaders of both countries saw environmental cooperation as the first priority for bilateral cooperation. As a result, two environmental agreements were announced in November 2015. One of those, the Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Conservation and Management of Marine Protected Areas, created a unique bilateral network that facilitates joint efforts concerning the science, stewardship, and management across five sites: Cuba’s Guanahacabibes National Park-Banco de San Antonio Prominent Natural Element and US’s Florida Keys and Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuaries and Dry Tortugas and Biscayne National Parks. This agreement was orchestrated by the US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Park Service (NPS) and Cuba’s National Center for Protected Areas (CNAP).
In addition to the MOU signed by Cuba and US in 2015, there have been various transnational efforts that focus on the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean. For example, the Project “Implementation of the Strategic Action Program of the Gulf of Mexico Large Marine Ecosystem (GOM LME)” aims to pursue a healthy, productive and resilient GOM by improving water quality through reducing pollution and nutrient loading, restoring depleted stocks of living resources including fisheries, and conserving and restoring coastal and marine ecosystems. In 2012, Mexico's Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP) and US's NOAA signed a MOU which is currently up for renewal that confirms the commitment of Mexico and US to collaborate in the support of the integrated management of the Gulf of Mexico MPAs. And this year, Mexico's CONANP and Cuba's CNAP signed an agreement to increase collaboration between their MPAs.
While all of these processes were happening, at CubaMar we have been strengthening our work in the Gulf of Mexico, primarily through the Trinational Initiative. We realized our goals of collaboration in the Gulf of Mexico aligned well with the GOM LME Project and the governments' signings of MOUs--the moment was right to consolidate the various marine trinational efforts under one MPA network, which is why RedGolfo was born. The idea of creating RedGolfo was made official at a meeting in Cozumel in December 2017 that featured two dozen MPA managers from Cuba, Mexico and the US. Since the Cozumel meeting, the network has expanded to 12 different sites, creating a broad and far flung network that stretches across the Gulf of Mexico (Figure 3).
Mérida 2018: Identifying priorities for the Gulf of Mexico Marine Protected Area Network
The official title of the Merida meeting was Policy Approaches to Enhance Transboundary Cooperation for the Creation of a Network of Sister Marine Protected Areas in the Gulf of Mexico. The meeting was funded by the Summit Foundation, JetBlue, IWLearn and GOM LME. In Merida, the three sanctioned MPA managing agencies in Cuba, Mexico and the US along with leaders from nonprofits working in the trinational region came together with a goal to more accurately define what a new MPA network encompassing the largest enclosed body of water in the Western Atlantic would look like. What would make it unique? How would it be funded in perpetuity? How would it address joint threats such as mass tourism, climate change and overfishing using shared resources? What other MPA network models could be used to inform its design and function? How would shared migratory and dispersive species and habitats be protected and monitored? These are just a few of the important questions to consider when forming a network.
Left: Participants attend plenary sessions on RedGolfo’s expectations, key management challenges and solutions, and policy connectivity. Right: CubaMar Director Fernando Bretos presents on the Trinational Initiative’s role in creation of RedGolfo.
A major result of the meeting was that participants identified immediate outputs for execution in the first year of RedGolfo. These outputs are:
In order to achieve the outputs above, the group proposed the following activities for year one of RedGolfo:
In order to proceed with the network, meeting participants discussed some challenges that need to be overcome. For example, network members need to agree on a definition and function of the network. We also need to identify shared monitoring and evaluation tools since currently the diversity of tools used in the MPAs of the three countries makes comparison between them difficult. And as always, funding remains a challenge.
The next RedGolfo meeting will take place in October in Cuba in conjunction with the 2018 Cuban Marine Science Conference. Stay tuned regarding new developments regarding RedGolfo!