Obama’s Historic Change in U.S.-Cuba Policy Signals Greater Cooperation on Oceans

Environment expected to fuel economic growth in Cuba

December 17, 2014
Matt Smelser, (202) 572-3272, msmelser@edf.org

(CUBA – Dec. 17, 2014) President Obama’s historic decision today to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba is expected to pave the way for true environmental cooperation between the United States and Cuba on ocean conservation, the most productive area of bilateral cooperation between the two countries for the past decade.

“The President’s announcement means environmental protection will no longer hit a wall at the Cuban border,” said Dan Whittle, director, EDF Cuba Oceans Program and Senior Attorney. “Our work is all about knowledge transfer – taking the best practices of scientists, managers, and fishermen from around the world and helping apply them in the ocean ecosystem we share with Cuba. The door is now wide open to a new level of cooperation, technology transfer, investment, and research not seen since 1959, which is great news for the oceans and the people who depend on them for food and livelihoods. We have a real opportunity to move forward.”

For the past 13 years, operating under a special license from the U.S. government, EDF has been working with partners in Cuba to determine ways of growing the economy while protecting the country’s extraordinary natural heritage. Cuba retains many of the Caribbean’s most pristine coral reefs, sea grass beds and mangrove swamps – home to sea turtles, reef fish, sharks, dolphins and manatees. The oceans we share with Cuba, through the Florida straits, Gulf Stream, and the waters of the Caribbean and Atlantic, hold a treasure trove of marine life critical to sustaining ecological diversity, and providing more fish in the sea, more food on the plate, and more economic prosperity.

“President Obama’s historic announcement will allow EDF and our partners to expand our work to promote scientific exchange and environmental dialog,” said EDF President Fred Krupp, who has traveled to Cuba half a dozen times to meet with scientists and officials there. “During our visits, we heard from national and local officials about their vision for protecting oceans and marine life while growing their economy. We have built strong relationships with them that have led to positive results for the ocean and helped build tourism. The President’s policy provides a new opportunity to build on this foundation of trust and cooperation, and restore our oceans into a sustainable, enduring resource.”

“With normalized relations come great opportunity, but also great challenges,” noted Whittle. “The doors are now open to U.S. travel and investment, and the rigor of Cuba’s environmental rules will be tested. As money begins to flow into Cuba, it is critical that we continue our work helping Cuba build upon its impressive environmental protections and double down. EDF believes the environment will fuel economic growth, but we cannot allow the environment to be sacrificed in the process.”

EDF’s partnership with Cuba includes the following projects.

Marine protected areas: One of EDF’s early initiatives was working with Cuban scientists on identifying marine areas around the island that needed to be protected. We helped to convene workshops across the country with Cuban scientists to identify the most important nursery areas, coral reefs, sea grass beds and other habitats. The result was that Cuba set a target for 25 percent of its coastal waters to be protected in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Today the country is about halfway to its goal, with more than 100 MPAs and counting.

Conserving sharks: In 2013, EDF helped convene an international conference in Cuba on protecting sharks that migrate across the boundaries of many countries. As a result, Cuba committed to develop a national plan of action for conserving sharks as part of a voluntary United Nations agreement, and we are working with leaders to help shape the plan.

Fishing rights pilots: With our guidance, Cuba has launched a three-year SOS Pesca initiative. The project aims to equip local leaders to manage fisheries sustainably by combining fishing rights with sustainable harvest controls and marine reserves. Pilot projects are underway in two villages along the Gulf of Ana Maria on Cuba’s south coast: Guayabal and Playa Florida.

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Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org), a leading international nonprofit organization, creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF links science, economics, law, and innovative private-sector partnerships. Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs.edf.org/edfish