Cuba's shark conservation plan: A scientific move at the right time

Daniel Whittle

Back in February of this year, our team of Cuban and American marine scientists placed a satellite tag on a longfin mako shark off the coast of Havana to track its movements. By mid-July, the shark had traveled more than 5,500 miles, swimming as far north as New Jersey – and we expect it to be back in Cuba for the winter.

The amazing journey of a single shark shows why conservation of migratory species cannot be the responsibility of a single country acting alone. We must work across political borders to share science and resources, and we must support one another to get the job done.

This is why Cuba’s historic National Plan of Action to conserve and sustain vulnerable sharks – crafted in collaboration with Environmental Defense Fund and the first such plan developed by a Caribbean island – is such a breakthrough.

A plan for sharks - and people

The plan calls for new protective zones to guard critical shark habitats. It adopts new regulations that will protect juvenile sharks, and limits fishing and by-catch of shark.

Importantly, it also involves fishermen in the collection of shark data because, as my friend Jorge Angulo, a senior scientist with Cuba’s Center for Marine Center, said, “The more we understand about how people and sharks interact, the better we can manage and conserve them.”

Cuba’s plan follows guidelines developed by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which has urged the international community to save the world’s dwindling shark population. I’m not surprised Cuba heeded the call.

The country is, in some ways, the epicenter of shark conservation. Scientists think nearly 20 percent of the world’s 500 shark species swim outside the island nation’s coast.

Cuba also happens to have some of the best-preserved marine ecosystems in the Caribbean, thanks in no small part to its strong commitment to conservation.

Earlier this year, the country banned shark “finning.” Today’s shark plan also comes on the heels of a historic agreement forged between Cuba and United States to work together to study and protect marine habitats in the Gulf of Mexico, made possible by the their restoration of diplomatic relations in July.

Next: A regional effort?

The new shark plan was developed over the past two years during dozens of meetings, workshops, e-mail exchanges and field trips involving, among others, our team and some of the Cuban partners we’ve now worked with for the past 15 years. The plan was later reviewed by world-renowned shark experts in the U.S., Cuba, Mexico and Australia.

Next, we’ll take a closer look at the plan to see how to increase our knowledge of sharks and to best conserve shark populations over the long-term. The management of the plan will then be coordinated with Cuba’s immediate neighbors and other countries in the region.

Already, Cuba is talking about crafting a regional plan for shark conservation, and there’s a compelling economic argument supporting such overtures.

Ecotourism is a growing business, and countries that want a slice of the pie had better look after their marine resources. Cuba knows.