EDF and Cuba Partner on Historic Plan to Protect and Restore Sharks

“National Plan of Action” is first-ever for a Caribbean Island

October 21, 2015

(HAVANA – October 21, 2015) Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the Cuban government are joining forces to execute a historic plan that will put in place new protections for sharks in Cuban waters. Sharks, which have been in sharp decline in recent decades, play a crucial role in the health of the ocean and other sea life we depend on for our food and livelihoods.

Cuba’s National Plan of Action marks an important first step in the region for addressing shark conservation and sustainable management. Scientists believe that nearly 20 percent of the world’s 500 shark species swim in Cuba’s waters. As a part of this plan, Cuba will develop new measures to protect the most vulnerable and threatened species, and guard against overfishing of all shark species in Cuban waters. Because some sharks travel thousands of miles, protecting sharks in Cuba will likely help shark populations in the United States, Mexico and throughout the region.

Scientists from Cuba, EDF and other institutions developed the plan over two years through a collaborative research and design process that included data collection on sharks, and training for fishermen to collect critical data on species. The process was modeled after one used by the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization to address the conservation of vulnerable species.  

“This historic commitment by Cuba will have impacts beyond its borders and provide managers with the information they need to rebuild and sustain shark populations throughout the region,” said Daniel Whittle, Senior Director for Cuba with EDF’s Oceans Program. “This plan emphasizes Cuba’s focus on the importance of sharks, the threat of overfishing, and the need for international collaboration on science. We look forward to continuing work with our Cuban partners to fulfill these commitments.”

Cuba’s coral reefs, sea grass beds, and mangrove forests are some of the most intact marine ecosystems in the region. However, overfishing of sharks and many other species throughout the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean region has significantly contributed to the decline of these once pristine ecosystems. Cuba’s plan of action aims to increase the understanding of sharks’ role in ecosystem health, curb overfishing and highlight the importance of sharks to the country’s growing fishing and tourism sectors.

Shark conservation can be a challenge due to the migratory nature of many shark species. Cuban officials recruited scientists from the United States and Mexico to help develop the plan and to train Cuban fishermen on how to collect critical data on species, locations, and frequency of shark catches.

“This plan is a huge step forward for Cuba and the rest of the region,” said Dr. Elisa Garcia, Director of the Office of Fishing Regulations and Science. “It lays the foundation for coordinated data collection to understand the threats sharks face and to take conservation actions by setting limits on fishing, establishing closures, and protecting juveniles and critical habitat.”

Today’s plan builds upon earlier actions taken by the Cuban government to study and protect sharks. Since 2010, scientists at the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research have been working with fishermen in coastal communities on Cuba’s north coast to better understand which species are most common in Cuban waters and which are most vulnerable. Earlier this year, Cuban officials imposed a ban on the destructive and wasteful practice of shark “finning.”

“Getting fishermen involved in collecting data has been critical,” said Dr. Jorge Angulo, senior scientist with Cuba’s Center for Marine Research, who leads the research team. “The more we understand about sharks, the better we can manage and conserve them.”

Next steps include implementing a national system to gather data on sharks from fishing ports and adopting new regulations to protect juvenile sharks, set limits on total catch, and reduce shark bycatch. The plan also anticipates a series of protected zones aimed at safe-guarding critical shark habitats and other areas that are important for tourism.

“This plan brings together Cuban scientists and leaders who work in fishing, tourism and conservation under the common purpose of protecting sharks for the future,” said Dr. Garcia.

EDF has a long history of supporting marine science and conservation in Cuba. Over the last 15 years, EDF has worked with Cuban officials to design an ambitious network of more than 100 marine protected areas, has helped Cuban fishing communities develop new fishery management programs, and has supported the work of Cuba’s leading marine scientists and conservationists.

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