Marine Conservation Brings U.S. and Cuba Together

The U.S. embargo against Cuba began on October 19, 1960, and was a commercial, economic and financial embargo. It began after Cuba nationalized American owned Cuban oil refineries without compensation. Fifty- four years later, in December of 2014, a warming of relations began between the U.S. and Cuba when President Obama and President Raul Castro announced the beginning of a process to normalize relations between the two countries. This process has led us to the first environmental accord between the two nations since diplomatic relations were renewed.

On November 18, 2015, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Park Service (NPS), signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment. The agreement commits the U.S. and Cuba to facilitate joint efforts concerning science, stewardship, and management related to Marine Protected Areas (MPA). It also includes a sister MPA program to foster conservation and understanding of natural marine resources in both countries, sharing technical and scientific data, and promoting education and outreach initiatives.

“We recognize we all share the same ocean and face the same challenges of understanding, managing, and conserving critical marine resources for future generations,” said Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA administrator, who was in Cuba for the signing of the agreement. “The opportunity for international cooperation in marine conservation is invaluable and this moves us closer to ensuring a healthy and productive ocean for everyone.”

Also present was National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis who said, “Cooperation among protected area managers of Cuba and U.S. national park and marine sanctuaries is a great way to preserve our shared natural heritage of the wider Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico regions. After all, fish, marine mammals, sea turtles, birds and other marine life exist in ecosystems that rarely fall within maps drawn by man.”

The initial sister MPA relationship focuses on scientists from the Florida Keys and the Texas Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuaries working together with researchers from Cuba’s Guanahacabibes National Park and the Banco de San Antonio. This sister sanctuary relationship recognizes that these places are all linked through the flow of ocean currents and animal migration.

Guanahacabibes National Park is one of the largest protected areas in Cuba with a size of more than 150 square miles. The Park is home to coral reefs, beaches, mangroves, scrublands, and evergreen forest. It has more than 170 species of birds and dozens of reptile and mammal species. The beaches are home to the second largest breeding population of green turtles. It was listed as a Biosphere Reserve in 1987 by UNESCO.

The Banco de San Antonio supports a lush coral reef ecosystem located at the junction of the currents that flow from the Caribbean into the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, the bank’s coral reefs are importantly placed to have significant influences on the condition of coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico and South Florida. Banco De San Antonio is also home to more than 100 species of fish, 15 species of coral, and more than 40 species of sponges.

Despite this new cooperation between Cuba and the U.S., environmentalists are concerned about the effects of anticipated commercial development and offshore oil drilling might have on Cuba’s healthy biodiversity.

Photo courtesy of NOAA

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