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Can ocean science bring Cuba and the United States together?

Can ocean science bring Cuba and the United States together?
June 5, 2017 6:02pm

(THE CONVERSATION) Cuba is the ecological crown jewel of the Caribbean.
It harbors thousands of the region’s endemic species and about half of
its coastal ecosystems. It is rare to find comparable ecosystems or such
rich biodiversity anywhere in the Caribbean, and perhaps in the Western

Cuba also is inextricably linked to its neighbor countries, especially
the United States. These two nations have been adversaries for over 60
years, but their common backyard is an ocean filled with limited shared

Since December 2014, when then- Barack Obama ordered the
restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, both governments have
taken steps to improve cooperation. They include agreements to work
together to protect some of the Caribbean’s most important coral reefs
and marine sanctuaries. Now, however, the Trump administration
reportedly is planning to slow or halt at least some U.S. engagement
with Cuba.

I am a Cuban marine biologist and have had the opportunity to be part of
U.S. academia and facilitate scientific partnerships between the two
countries. Scientists on both sides are very interested in working
together, and I believe that we owe it to nature and people on both
sides to keep this door open.

Cuban waters provide vital spawning and nursery grounds for snapper,
grouper and other marine species that are commercially important in the
United States. Cuba is also a major stopover point on migration routes
for many North America birds.

When I tagged and tracked longfin mako sharks with colleagues from
Florida, we found that they ranged into territorial waters around Cuba,
the United States, the Bahamas and Mexico – showing clearly just how
connected our waters are. Other scientists have reported similar results
for species including manatees, sea turtles and fish larvae.

Since the U.S. government relaxed restrictions on American to
Cuba in 2015, Cuba has experienced an explosion in international
, which is projected to continue. Expanding and related
development, combined with longstanding poor management of reefs and
fisheries and economic scarcity, could have major impacts on the waters
that link our countries.

Although Cuba’s coastal habitats are in fairly good condition, its fish
populations are heavily exploited and threatened by commercial and
private subsistence fisheries. Over 80 percent of its fishery resources
are in critical condition.

In many coastal communities, for example, small private fishermen depend
on fish for subsistence and also supplement their incomes by selling
fish on the black market. Pressures on targeted species such as tarpon
and bonefish are believed to be substantial, but currently no data are
available to quantify the extent and magnitude of impacts on fish
populations or ecosystems.

Cuban does not presently rely on extensive use of synthetic
fertilizers, pesticides or other agricultural chemicals. This means that
pollution and eutrophication (overfertilization, which produces large
blooms of algae and “dead zones”) may not be major threats to its
fisheries and marine ecosystems. Nonetheless, isolated and significant
pollution sources, such as processing industries and oil
refineries, affect many important bays and harbors around the island.
Their impacts on marine ecosystems currently are not well-understood or

Cuba has established 108 marine protected areas that provide some level
of protection to nearly 23 percent of the shallow waters around the
island. However, many of them are at risk due to funding shortages, lack
of trained staff, poor enforcement and inefficient management. In 2015
the United States and Cuba agreed to create partnerships between
sanctuaries in the two countries, so that we can share data and ideas
for conserving these sites.

Our common ocean is an essential resource for the United States and
Cuba, and any action (or inaction) by one country will significantly
impact the other. Scientific collaboration to protect marine resources
will benefit both nations.

Cooperation between scientific organizations in Cuba and the United
States dates back to the 19th century, and has helped to maintain
dialogue even during the most difficult phases of U.S.-Cuban relations.
Cuban and American scientists have worked together to address sensitive
environmental issues such as shark conservation, conduct
state-of-the-art research and Cubans to do research and conservation.

At times, however, bureaucratic hurdles and misunderstandings on both
sides have arisen, and government decisions or indecision have blocked
good projects and ideas, such as importing and exporting equipment,
organizing research expeditions and field courses, and collecting and
exporting samples.

Cubans are facing very difficult economic times, and many are struggling
to feed their families. In such circumstances they are unlikely to see
environmental protection as a high priority. Cuba is at a crucial
decision point, choosing between an environmentally friendly development
path like Costa Rica’s or a destructive Cancun-style model.

Joint Cuban-American scientific ventures should reach out to the public
in both countries with a strong message about preserving our shared
ocean resources. They should also invest in communities to change
environmental perceptions and attitudes. We need to create effective
incentives, increase exchanges of people and ideas, and improve
communication about these issues.

Academia has a key role to play in this effort. U.S. colleges and
universities should explore models that offer more opportunities to
Cuban scientists, and Cuban schools should do the same. U.S. schools are
already increasing their presence in Cuba through field courses that
allow students to experience Cuban realities. Other U.S. organizations
such as the Environmental Defense Fund have also expanded ties with
Cuban institutions and people.

Unfortunately, this process is working in only one direction. It is much
more difficult for Cubans to visit the United States, thanks to
restrictions on both sides. We need opportunities for groups of Cuban
students to come to the United States for field courses and other
academic programs.

Cubans and Americans have more in common than anyone may think. Our
nations are united by nature, history and cultural links that have
overcome politics. The timing is right for scientists on both sides to
make a strong case in favor of normalization over confrontation, and a
better future for both countries.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the
original article here:

Source: Can ocean science bring Cuba and the United States together? –
San Francisco Chronicle –

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