‘One really sick reef’: To protect wildlife, Cuba faces tough challenges, choices

A scrawled filefish (Aluterus scriptus) pecks at a moon jelly (Aurelia aurita) above a healthy stand of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) in shallow waters off Cuba’s Isle of Youth. (© David E. Guggenheim)

A scrawled filefish pecks at a moon jelly above a healthy stand of elkhorn coral in shallow waters off Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud. (© David E. Guggenheim)

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series from coral reef scientist Les Kaufman’s recent research trip to Cuba. Read Part 1 here.

A journey to Cuba’s Zapata National Park had revealed to us just how much of the country’s unique natural treasures remained. But a dive in Cuba’s coastal waters was to tell a different story.

After our jaunts through Zapata, I and my two traveling companions — biologist Dr. Joe Roman, and my wife, neurobiologist Dr. Jackie Liederman — headed back to Havana to catch up with our Cuban colleagues at the Center for Marine Science, headed by marine biologist Dr. Patricia Gonzalez, and to figure out where we were going next.

There we held an intensive two-day meeting to trade notes: The Americans got up to speed on the Cubans’ years of coral reef research, and the Americans recommended research and conservation priorities based on their collective knowledge of the rest of the Caribbean and the world. Joe and I sought to link biology and economics by laying out a plan for studies to aid in connecting development on land to the health and conservation of Cuba’s ocean resources — not to mention its endangered and endemic species. This would help to capture the ways that intact habitats and species affect economic, cultural and other values — as well as forecast changes in natural assets that would likely result from various development decisions Cuba could make.

Participants in the 2015 Coral Resilience Workshop led by the Ocean Doctor team. Left to right starting from the top: Fabián Pina-Amargós, Jeremy Jackson, Carlos Saavedra, Ximena Escovar-Fadul, Les Kaufman, Laura López-Castañeda, Leslie Hernandez-Fernandés, Tamara Figueredo-Martín Maickel Armenteros, Joe Roman, Patricia Gonzalez-Díaz, and David Guggenheim (© Ocean Doctor)

Participants in the 2015 Coral Resilience Workshop in Havana, Cuba. Left to right starting from the top: Fabián Pina-Amargós, Jeremy Jackson, Carlos Saavedra, Ximena Escovar-Fadul, Les Kaufman, Laura López-Castañeda, Leslie Hernandez-Fernandés, Tamara Figueredo-Martín, Maickel Armenteros, Joe Roman, Patricia Gonzalez-Díaz and David Guggenheim. (© Ocean Doctor)

Our meetings complete, we wanted to head out to the field. As luck would have it, late August is peak season for summer vacations in Cuba … including for those whose signatures were required to authorize our Cuban colleagues’ travel by sea or air. Ultimately, we received official blessing to head to Isla de la Juventud, off Cuba’s southwest coast, as our field destination.

After two hours by bus and another five by boat, we were ready to check out one of Cuba’s classic dive sites, near Punta Frances. The site was chosen by Patricia, who said that on her last visit here three years ago, the coral was spectacular. The place is known in the dive community as a fantastic shelf-edge site with monumental coral buttresses, caves and “swim-throughs.”

When I saw the deep blue my heart leaped in anticipation; my excitement grew as the majesty and scale of the  topography became apparent — and then sank when I hit the reef and saw an all-too-familiar scene of devastation and decay that I’d known from elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Live coral cover was low, maybe 10%, where on a healthy reef it would be 50% or greater. The corals were shot through with large blobs of Cliona delitrix, a massive boring sponge whose name means “destroyer.” My doctoral advisor, Jeremy Jackson, who had joined us on the dive trip, began to sift disconsolately through the coral rubble, seeking clues to what might have happened here.

(Another Cliona delitrix picture, same caption as before).

The destructive boring sponge Cliona delitrix grows on and burrows into massive coral skeletons, as shown above in Cuba’s coastal waters. (© David E. Guggenheim)

When we reached the surface I was ready with a gentle way of asking my colleagues whether this situation was typical. But Jeremy beat me to it loud and clear: “That was one really sick reef!”

Our other dives were more encouraging. We visited shallow sites nearby where staghorn and elkhorn coral were regenerating, vibrant and hopeful. The water was very hot — notably so even for Cuba in August — and as a result there was substantial coral bleaching going on. The corals looked mostly on the mend, though, so my eye was drawn instead to an unusual abundance of the gorgeous, electric violet-blue of the finger coral Porites branneri. On another dive, we dropped down onto a gorgonian (soft coral) plain with generous amounts of stately pillar coral and large shoals of snapper and grunt.

No ‘untouched Cuba’

It wasn’t until we flew home that Jackie and I had a chance to think about what we’d seen and heard.

When we first set out, we thought we would see an untouched Cuba with Cuban scientists and come up with a plan to keep it pristine in the face of an end to the punitive U.S. embargo, a reopening of markets and rapid development. By the end of the trip we all appreciated that Cuba — while hardly pristine — should indeed be a global conservation priority. The country is brimming with biodiversity, hope, opportunity — and the conservation talent and government needed to protect it.

Further reading

Though much of the island’s forest cover had long since been decimated by colonial shipbuilding and sugar plantations, the embargo, communism and an ill-conceived U.S.-sponsored military invasion had inadvertently conspired to protect much of the coastal habitat and other environmentally critical areas. Indeed, the protection of the Zapata Peninsula as a national park may have had as much to do with memorializing the Cuban victory at the Bay of Pigs as it did with conserving biodiversity.

coral reef buttress, Cuba

Massive coral reef buttresses in Cuba. (© Les Kaufman)

The success of conservation efforts here will ultimately depend on the will of the Cuban people themselves. Cubans patiently and resolutely deal with a complex economy, frequent shortages of goods, restrictions on personal freedom and a considerable level of equity — in which most have very little. In the past, their circumstances have led them to find new solutions; for example, the difficulty and expense of obtaining agrochemicals in Cuba sparked creative developments in organic agriculture. Plus, Cubans embrace science — it seemed to me more so than Americans — and put their stock in rational approaches to problem-solving. I am confident that with adequate support, Cubans can protect the natural treasures of their homeland and share them with the rest of the world.

Les Kaufman is a Marine Conservation Fellow at Conservation International. He’s also a professor at Boston University, where he teaches and conducts research in the marine program. Read Part 1 of this blog series here.

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