Day 4: Journey to Cuba's underwater Eden

  • Up close and personal

    Up close and personalDominique Rissolo, a Waitt Institute marine archeaologist, moves in for a closer look at a amiable black grouper. Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

  • Pas de deux

    Pas de deuxA pair of elegant gray angelfish probe for food among sea fans and coral.Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

  • Coop City

    Coop CityYellowtail goatfish and French grunts seek refuge under branches of healthy elkhorn coral. The abundant fish biomass in the Gardens is one sign of a healthy reef.Photo by: Ken Marks

  • Queen triggerfish

    Queen triggerfishThe Spanish word for triggerfish is cochinos, which happens to be the same word for pigs. The Bahia de Cochinos (or Bay of Pigs) has lots of triggerfish, as do the reefs in the Gardens. Did the CIA flub the translation?Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

By Rod Griffin

Protecting Eden

both

I'm 70 feet underwater at a dive site called Pipin when a prehistoric-looking fish the size of a VW Beetle swims up to me. It’s brazenly curious and fearless, yet non-threatening. It's a goliath grouper, one of three of these amazing creatures we see on our dive today.

The goliath grouper is critically endangered in the Caribbean. They were fished to near extinction in Florida, before they were protected in 1990, and are still extremely rare. Protecting large reef fish like these mature goliaths is key for replenishing fish stocks; they can produce as much as ten times more young than smaller fish.

The existence of these giants is one benefit of Cuba’s approach to conservation. The government has designated 18% of its ocean shelf as marine protected areas (which EDF helped design), with a goal of increasing that to 25%. Fabian Pina, a scientist with Cuba’s Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research, says fish populations in the Gardens have grown by 30-50% since the area was protected.

a goliath grouper

True behemoth: a goliath grouper.

Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

Still, MPAs alone are not enough to save many species, particularly wide-ranging fish like tuna, tarpon, bonefish and sharks.

Two years ago tourism operators at Avalon, an Italian company that runs the dive center with the Cuban government, noticed there were fewer sharks in the Gardens. “Where are the sharks?” they wondered. It turns out increased fishing outside the park was taking a toll. In the state-run fishery, fishermen meet their quota by weight – and sharks are heavy.

Even goliath grouper, which are relatively sedentary as adults, move out of the park during spawning season, traveling more than a hundred miles away. As part of a research project, Pina tagged five goliath groupers. Four of them were caught outside the park boundary over the next two years.

The 600-to-800 pounders that Pina frequently saw a decade ago are very rare now.

What happens outside the park matters

The protected area only partly explains the unusual health of the ecosystems here. Another factor is the underdevelopment of Cuba’s fishing industry.

That’s likely to change as the government takes steps to upgrade its fishing fleet and increase its annual catch. Pressure is already mounting from Cuba’s expanding private market for more fish. And what will happen as the Cuban economy opens up and tourism grows?

In the end, how the government balances ecotourism and the growth in fisheries will be critical.

“Usually governments try to manage fisheries and ignore marine protected areas – or vice versa,” says Prof. Chris Costello, an expedition team member. Costello is a resource economist at the University of California at Santa Barbara and co-author of a groundbreaking study on fisheries management in Science showing how catch shares can help prevent fisheries collapse by giving fishermen a stake in the health of the resource.

EDF’s Rod Fujita

EDF’s Rod Fujita

Photo by: Rod Griffin

For example, a catch share program for reef fish that EDF helped implement in the Gulf of Mexico has led to rebounds in grouper and snapper populations.

“Putting MPAs and fisheries management together is the key to successful management in the future,” Costello says. “It seems so logical, but it’s just never been done. Cuba could be a model for the world.”

The Cubans get it, which is one reason they are so interested working with EDF and TNC on scientific exchanges. They have a stake in improving fisheries management and expanding the MPA network.

One management option for Cuba, says Rod Fujita, EDF’s director of oceans research and development, is a cooperative system like the one in Chile. “The Chilean example might fit the Cuban situation because profits are shared,” he says. “No one really owns fishing privileges. They’re held collectively, so it doesn’t go against the grain of communism.”