Why Cuba-U.S. Collaboration Is More Important Than Ever

For more than half a century, the Straits of Florida, the thin band of blue water that courses northeastward between the U.S. and Cuba, have been invoked in political discourse to underscore the seemly insurmountable divide between our countries. But dunk your head underwater and you'll see that, in fact, these warm, rich waters inextricably unite us.

The Straits of Florida connect Cuba and the U.S., creating important pathways for fish, sharks, sea turtles and other marine life. Photo credit: Adapted from NASA MODIS satellite image, 7/26/2012

Many of the beloved sea turtles that nest on U.S. beaches forage in Cuban waters and vice versa. Sharks, whales and other migratory species regularly cross our respective borders. And Cuban fish grow up to become American fish. Studies show that larvae from grouper and snapper in Cuba hitch a ride in the swiftly moving currents into Florida's waters where they become adults.

The simple fact is that the U.S. and Cuba share a rich marine ecosystem that both nations depend upon. If we are to understand and protect this shared ecosystem, we must work together. Sometimes neighbors don't get along, but when something goes wrong in the neighborhood, they must rise above their differences and find a way to work together.

Unfortunately, something has gone very wrong in our neighborhood. A major report released in 2014 from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reveals an average decline of coral cover in the Caribbean of more than 50 percent since 1970. Corals are dying from a deadly combination of factors. Nutrient pollution, carrying fertilizers from farms and back yards, is fueling the growth of coral-smothering algae. Overfishing is removing parrotfish and other fish that graze on algae, keeping it in check. Thanks to a warming climate, corals are being pushed to the brink of their thermal limits.

The reefs I delighted in as a teenager in the Florida Keys are unrecognizable today. The Caribbean's most iconic coral species, elkhorn coral, is now estimated to be 95 percent extinct from Caribbean waters. The IUCN report, the most comprehensive to date, offers the somber prognosis that without swift and meaningful action, “Caribbean coral reefs and their associated resources will virtually disappear within just a few decades…"

Many in the conservation community abandoned hope for the Caribbean. I had nearly lost hope myself. But several years ago, I started seeing something strange in Cuban waters: Cuban coral reefs were healthy -- strikingly so. In Cuba's Gardens of the Queen National Park, an archipelago 50 miles off Cuba's southern coast, I beheld magnificent stands of healthy elkhorn coral, teeming with colorful grunts, snappers and angelfish, a stand that I later learned was part of a barrier reef system that extends for more than 30 miles. I came face-to-face with Goliath groupers, a critically-endangered species, more than triple my weight. I found myself surrounded by dozens of healthy Caribbean reef sharks, silky sharks, tarpon and myriads of other vibrant fish and corals. And just as Cuba is often described as frozen in time, I felt I was immersed in a living time machine evidencing none of the decay and disease the rest of the Caribbean had suffered over the past half century.

A healthy stand of the relatively rare coral species, pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindricus) observed in January 2015 off the southern Cuban coast. Cuba's remarkably healthy coral reefs may provide insights into protecting and restoring seriously degraded coral reefs around the Caribbean. Photo credit: David E. Guggenheim

Cuba's reefs are likely so healthy in part because the island has developed so differently from the rest of the Caribbean. But it's also because Cuba has taken meaningful actions to protect its reefs. Cuba's Gardens of the Queen is the country's first marine protected area (MPA) established in 1996. At nearly 1,000 square kilometers, it is the largest fully-protected MPA in the Caribbean. Cuba has made a national commitment to protecting 25 percent of its marine waters, a world-leading figure compared to the worldwide average of 1 percent.

Thanks to Cuba, many of us are now filled with hope for the Caribbean. If we can study this living laboratory to fully understand what is keeping the coral reef ecosystems so healthy and resilient, we can gain insights that can guide coral reef restoration efforts throughout the Caribbean. Working with our Cuban colleagues, we are preparing an international scientific workshop with this very purpose, to learn from one of the last living coral reef laboratories, to understand what a healthy coral reef ecosystem is supposed to look like and how we can best protect it.

A scuba diver observes a Green sea turtle off the southern Cuban coast. Some sea turtles nesting in Cuba forage in U.S. waters and vice versa. Protecting these endangered species and others requires strong international cooperation. Photo credit: Noel López

As an American, working in Cuba has been exceedingly difficult. Restoring diplomatic relations represents an important step forward and may finally allow government-to-government collaboration in marine science and conservation, something we have been trying to encourage for years. Removing Cuba from the “State Sponsors of Terrorism" list (and ultimately, lifting the trade embargo) will make it possible for us to export equipment critical for our work, currently prohibited or restricted by regulations.

Long before the 1959 revolution and the subsequent severing of diplomatic relations, the U.S. and Cuba shared a fruitful history of scientific collaboration stretching from the mid-19th century. Today, more than ever, our futures, and perhaps that of the Caribbean, depend upon such collaboration, to study, manage and protect our common resources, to learn from one another, and to teach the next generation about the wonders of its natural heritage. We have a beautiful neighborhood to care for. And neither of us can do it alone.


OMG I Thought You Were Dead!

What Becomes of Cuba After the Embargo Is Lifted?

500 Years After Columbus, Cuba's Gardens of the Queen Still Pristine

Show Comments ()
Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens are developing hybrid electric commercial airplane plane. Airbus

Norway Aims for Electric Planes to Help Slow Climate Change

Norway—home to the world's highest per capita number of all-electric cars—is also planning to go emission-free in the friendly skies.

The Scandinavian country aims to be the first in the world to switch to electric air transport.

Keep reading... Show less
A massive sinkhole in Winkler County, Texas. Google Earth

Large Swath of Texas Oil Patch Rapidly Sinking and Uplifting, Study Finds

West Texas is already home to two giant sinkholes near the town of Wink caused by intensive oil and gas operations. Now, according to an unprecedented study, the "Wink Sinks" might not remain the last in the region.

Geophysicists at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas have found rapid rates of ground movement at various locations across a 4,000-square-mile swath around the two sinkholes. This area is known for processing extractions from the oil-rich Permian Basin.

Keep reading... Show less

Study Shows Some Pesticides More Bee-Safe Than Others, But Are Any Pesticides Eco-Friendly?

A study published Thursday in Current Biology is being hailed in a University of Exeter press release as a major "breakthrough" in developing bee-friendly insecticides. But some environmentalists think the research is asking the wrong questions to begin with.

Keep reading... Show less
Parks & Wildlife Service, Western Australia / Twitter

More Than 140 Whales Dead After Mass Stranding in Western Australia

More than 150 short-finned pilot whales stranded en masse at Hamelin Bay on the west coast of Australia early Friday morning.

Most of the whales did not survive after beaching themselves, according to Jeremy Chick, incident controller at Western Australia's Parks & Wildlife Service.

Keep reading... Show less
Renewable Energy

Tech Giant Microsoft Signs Largest Corporate Solar Agreement in the U.S.

By Katrine Tilgaard Petersen

Microsoft has announced the single largest corporate purchase of solar power ever seen in the U.S., signing an agreement with sPower to add 315 MW of electricity via two solar projects in Virginia.

Microsoft has been powered by 100 percent renewable electricity since 2014. In 2015, the tech giant joined RE100, a global corporate leadership initiative by The Climate Group in partnership with CDP, now bringing together 130 ambitious companies committed to sourcing entirely renewable power.

Keep reading... Show less

The New Government Omnibus Spending Bill Shows That Science Advocacy Matters

By Yogin Kothari

After a long wait, late Wednesday night, Congress posted a spending agreement for the rest of the 2018 fiscal year. For the most part, we achieved significant victories, especially given the challenging political environment, in repelling proposals that would have directly undermined the role of science in public health and environmental policymaking.

Keep reading... Show less

Pipeline Leaks 42,000 Gallons Into Indiana Stream

Forty-two thousand gallons of diesel spilled from a Marathon Petroleum Corporation pipeline into Big Creek in Posey Creek, Indiana before the leak was detected Tuesday evening, U.S. News & World Report reported Wednesday.

The pipeline was immediately shut off, and workers contained the spill with two booms before it reached the Wabash River.

Keep reading... Show less

Skylines to Switch Off as Millions Connect to the Planet to Celebrate Earth Hour 2018

On Saturday, March 24 at 8:30 p.m. local time, skylines around the world will go dark as millions celebrate WWF's Earth Hour to spark global awareness and action on nature and the environment.

From the Eiffel Tower to the Empire State Building, and the Bird's Nest stadium to Burj Khalifa, thousands of landmarks will switch off their lights in solidarity for the planet, urging individuals, businesses and governments worldwide to move forward the conversations and solutions we need to build a healthy, sustainable future for all.

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!