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Bound by Destiny: US-Cuba Sanctuaries Partnership
Dr. Kumar Mahadevan
While political differences have separated the people of Cuba and Florida for decades, water currents and marine organisms have always traversed freely through both nations’ territorial waters. Thanks to historic decisions and collaborative spirit across the marine science community, great changes are underway.

The Caribbean’s largest island country, Cuba, with a population of more than 11 million, and Florida, the third largest state in the U.S. are separated by less than 100 mi. and share waters through the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, connecting marine ecosystems and featuring identical habitats with a diversity that supports valuable fisheries.

Ecological conditions and extent of resource utilization, however, are dramatically different. A highly urbanized state dependent on development and tourism, Florida uses marine and coastal resources intensively, while Cuba’s coastline remains undeveloped. The difference in the marine environments is quite obvious even to the casual visitor, in much the same way as the 1950s vintage cars are in Havana.

In December 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama changed the course of the American-Cuban relationship by normalizing relations. The following summer, the Cuban Embassy opened in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Embassy opened in Havana. Although the embargo remains, tremendous opportunities have opened for cooperation on economic, scientific, technological, social and environmental platforms. For marine science and conservation, it is very good news indeed.

A subsequent U.S.-Cuba agreement in November 2015 launched a flurry of collaborative activities for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Southeast Region and the Cuban National Center for Protected Areas. The memorandum of understanding between the U.S.’s NOAA and National Park Service and Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment’s Center for Protected Areas established sister-sanctuary relationships between the interconnected protected areas Guanahacabibes and Banco de San Antonio in Cuba and Florida Keys and Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuaries (NMS) in the U.S. The agreement also incorporated a relationship with Dry Tortugas and Biscayne National Parks in the U.S.

Implementation of the Sister Sanctuaries Agreement began July 2016 with the first bi-national meeting of the U.S. and Cuban delegations in the Florida Keys, joined by Mote Marine Laboratory, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation (NMSF) and other NGO partners to study the NMS and adjacent parks’ management, ecosystem and challenges. The visit generated a two-year bilateral work plan for conservation and public education objectives.

Cuba has numerous talented scientists, but conducting joint marine research, especially in Cuban waters, has challenges such as lack of technological infrastructure, few research vessels and scientific instruments, limited communication networks, travel restrictions and paucity of finances. Persistence by U.S. scientists from NGOs and academia and the extraordinary desire by Cuban scientists for collaboration, however, have led to several joint initiatives.

Recognizing the connectivity of the shared waters of the U.S., Cuba and Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico Trinational Initiative formally began in 2007 at a meeting in Cancun, Mexico, through a partnership of Texas A&M University Corpus Christi Harte Research Institute, Center for International Policy, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), The Ocean Foundation, Mote, NMSF and Ocean Conservancy. The genesis of this initiative was at the Harte Advisory Council meeting in Havana in 2002. Subsequent meetings cemented the relationships, capped with a 2009 visit by Cuban scientists to Mote, sponsored by EDF. A 2010 Trinational meeting at Mote advanced development of a long-term work plan to understand the Gulf ecosystem in relation to sharks, coral reefs, fisheries, sea turtles, marine mammals and marine protected areas .

Since 2008, U.S. government scientists and managers have actively participated in NGO-sponsored international forums on marine protected areas with Cuban officials. This continuing dialog likely helped pave the way to quick action when diplomatic relations were restored.

Another pivotal event was a 2011 U.S.-Cuban marine scientists meeting in Havana, convened by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and hosted by the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Key emerging issues and opportunities for collaboration included an ecosystem approach, environmental change studies, biodiversity conservation, sustainable fisheries and capacity building for collaborative science.

The future of Cuba-U.S. relations in marine research and conservation appears promising. Travel restrictions have relaxed, government officials are interacting more freely for marine science, and direct commercial flights to Cuba from the U.S. have begun. NGOs are committed to play a significant role in fostering partnerships and funding research through philanthropy. Mote, the NMSF and other NGOs are poised to provide the financial and technical assistance needed to promote best practices, protections and sound science, as well as connect communities.

Until Congress lifts the embargo and begins funding research and education, progress remains slow. Yet the restoration of diplomatic relations has already begun to pay dividends. Cuba has been providing more accountability and transparency on activities in shared waters and is getting critical support to manage its protected areas with the influx of tourism and development. The potential promised by full partnership is endless.

Dr. Kumar Mahadevan, retired, volunteers for Mote Marine Laboratory (president emeritus), the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and the Florida Ocean Alliance. He served at Mote from 1978 to 2013, the last 27 years as CEO. He received his master’s degree from Annamalai University (India) and Ph.D. in oceanography from Florida State University.


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