Cuba's fishing communities fight hardships with sustainable practices

Daniel Whittle

On the surface, the remote, tightly knit village of Playa Florida—on Cuba’s south central coasthasn’t changed much over the last 50 years.

Most of the town’s 514 inhabitants either fish or depend on fishing for their livelihoods. State-owned shrimp trawlers, many decades old, still ply the rich waters of the Gulf of Ana Maria. And private fishermen use the same small wooden fishing boats their parents and grandparents used to fish for lane snapper and other species in mangrove-fringed lagoons and around nearby keys.  Some of these boats have motors built before the 1959 Cuban Revolution; others are powered only by muscle and wind.

But amid so much continuity, locals say, Playa Florida faces challenges that threaten its economy and way of life.


At a recent gathering at the town’s elementary school, one woman said she and her husband were fishing longer and longer hours, but coming home with fewer and fewer fish. Another fisherman said there is less diversity in his catch than in previous years and the fish tended to be smaller. “Some of the big fish are simply gone,” he said.

Local residents who serve as crew on the shrimp boats said they were making less money because shrimp harvests in the Gulf were declining. And finally, many pointed to sea level rise that is eroding shorelines and jeopardizing the town’s bustling summer tourism trade.

Playa Florida is not alone. Fishing communities throughout Cuba are facing similar challenges.

While Cuba boasts some of the Caribbean’s most intact marine ecosystems, for the past several years overfishing has significantly contributed to the decline of once pristine coral reef systems and thriving fish populations. Cuban scientists estimate that more than 40% of commercially important fish species are overfished – posing a major threat to Cuba’s fishing industry, food security and marine biodiversity.

Fighting back with sustainable fishing

The good news is that the Cuban government is taking steps at the national, regional and local levels to make fisheries more sustainable.

For example, earlier this year the Cuban government authorized the use of cooperatives in a range of economic sectors, including fisheries. Well-designed fishery cooperatives in other developing countries have shown to be effective in achieving social, economic and conservation goals. They can work in Cuba too.

In a couple of months, the National Assembly is expected to enact a new fisheries policy that places conservation and sustainability on an equal footing with production. Hopefully, science-based catch limits and measures to reduce illegal fishing will be featured in the new law. Finally, national park officials have proposed several new marine protected areas (MPAs) aimed at conserving coral reefs, sea grass beds and mangrove forests, all of which are important habitats for marine species.

At the regional level, scientists and managers are developing programs along Cuba’s southern coast to better integrate MPAs and fisheries management. This initiative includes a proposal to expand the legendary Gardens of the Queen national marine park, the largest marine park in the Caribbean and an important sanctuary for sharks and other large fish.

At the local level, a new community-based sustainable fisheries initiative called SOS Pesca is designed to give two small fishing communities on Cuba’s southern coast a more direct role in the management of fisheries and protected areas. Playa Florida is one of the project’s two communities, along with Guayabal, a town of 4,200 in Las Tunas province.

The principal goals of SOS Pesca are to conserve critical coastal and marine habitats in and around the two villages through new and expanded protected areas, to end overfishing through more sustainable fishing practices and management approaches, and to identify alternative livelihoods for those who wish to exit the fishery.

Fishermen in both communities will be examining how fishery cooperatives and other tools can be used to improve fishing conditions, increase revenues and sustain healthy fish stocks for future generations. SOS Pesca is supported by a grant from the European Union and is being implemented by the Cuban National Center for Protected Areas, the Italian NGO COSPE, World Wildlife Fund-Netherlands, and a variety of Cuban institutions. EDF is providing scientific support and fisheries expertise to the initiative.

Cuba’s biodiversity on land and sea is among the richest in the Caribbean. Many of its coral reefs are healthy and still teeming with abundant populations of big fish not commonly seen elsewhere in the region.  The government is now trying to preserve that natural heritage, and the traditional ways of life that have coexisted with it in places like Playa Florida. Getting communities and fishermen directly involved in that process is critically important.

As we were leaving our meeting in Playa Florida, I met a fishermen who told me he had seven children and all of them wanted to fish for a living.  “Fishing’s what we do. It’s our future,” he said.

I couldn’t agree with him more.

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