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!