Engaging with Cuban fishing communities

Collaborating for long-term sustainability

Cuba's magnificent marine biodiversity supports an important commercial fishing industry that produces highly desired export products like lobster and shrimp, supplies the country with a critical food source and provides over 50,000 jobs in coastal communities around the island. Our goal is to support Cuba's efforts to establish fisheries management plans that are built on sound science, strong partnerships and coastal communities’ involvement.

Cuba has a long legacy of fishing, and its waters present an opportunity for a resilient and diversified fishing industry. This industry represents an important source of income for fishing families, supports remote coastal communities and is critical for food security. Cuba is home to some of the Caribbean's most intact marine systems, which host a wide array of marine life, including over 100 commercial species.

However, overfishing plays a significant role in this ecosystem, contributing significantly to the decline of once pristine coral reefs and thriving fish populations, thus threatening local livelihoods. Cuban scientists estimate that up to 60% of commercially important fish species are overfished. To reverse this trend, EDF works with resource managers, scientists, government officials and fishers to find new ways to sustain Cuba's fishery resources while also improving the livelihoods of its communities. Improving fisheries now, so they continue to provide benefits in the future, is one way Cuba can address the challenges climate change presents.

A new era for sustainable fisheries

In 2019, Cuba’s National Assembly passed the country’s first fisheries law, bringing in a new era focused on ending overfishing, recovering depleted stocks and strengthening the economies of coastal communities. This forward-looking law requires the use of science-based management for all species that will in turn support greater food security, conservation and fishing jobs. This is the result of a multi-year collaborative process, which brought together administrators, fishers, the seafood industry, scientists, conservationists and government officials to explore new conservation approaches and tools for collecting better data. EDF acted as a trusted adviser, convener and partner throughout this process, providing scientific and technical guidance.

Cuba has a rich history of marine and fisheries science and conservation programs. This scientific legacy is paramount to support the implementation of the Fisheries Law, which embodies the nation’s vision for the future of its fisheries and marine resources. At the same time, Cuba is already seeing the impact of climate change, like rising sea levels and more frequent storms, on fish habitats and in coastal communities. This reality highlights the urgency to find solutions that combine strong fisheries management and climate change adaptation strategies. Fortunately, Cuban experts developed scientific models to anticipate future climate scenarios to guide climate-adaptive policies that will help the most vulnerable communities, like the national climate change adaptation strategy “Tarea Vida.” EDF is working with scientists in Cuba to understand how these future scenarios will affect fisheries and plan ahead.

EDF is committed to helping transform fisheries management around the world in the face of climate change, and Cuba is already making great progress. Part of EDF´s partnerships focus on multispecies fisheries management, where fishers catch many different species at the same time, often using a variety of gear types and involving numerous landing sites. This makes data collection and management difficult and creates a risk that vulnerable stocks will be overfished, altering species interactions and entire ecosystems. To tackle this complexity, Cuba is expanding the use of data-limited methods, introduced by EDF experts, to track the health of dozens of important finfish, shark and ray species. The approach, called Framework for Integrated Stock and Habitat Evaluation (FISHE), allows fishery managers to assess which fish species are the most vulnerable to overfishing, even when scientific data on the specific stocks are scarce. The FISHE methodology is now being used in other countries in the Caribbean and around the world. “We look forward to continuing to support Cuba as the country implements the Fisheries Law and develops new measures for healthier oceans and good fishing jobs,” said Valerie Miller, Director of EDF’s Cuba Oceans Program.

SOS Pesca

As in many parts of the world, Cuban fishermen often lack opportunities to meaningfully participate in the planning and management of fisheries and marine areas. SOS Pesca represents Cuba's first attempt to develop community-based marine management programs that align fishermen and their families, federal administrators, protected area officials and local governments towards a shared vision of sustainable fisheries. With the support of a strong international team led by the Cuban ministries for the environment and food, this project involved two fishing villages along Cuba's south coast, Playa Florida and Guayabal.

Through SOS Pesca, EDF collaborated with managers, scientists and fishermen to conduct the first national assessment of marine fisheries, analyzing 34 fish species. This study integrates scientific data and local knowledge around the biology, ecology, fishing activity, economics and management of stocks to identify the species that are most vulnerable to overexploitation. Partners have now identified priority species to monitor and develop science-based catch limits; they have also identified species of highest concern that warrant precautionary management measures to support their recovery.

Scientific exchanges and training

Science is the basis of our work. EDF helps produce and apply new scientific knowledge in support of national priorities through exchanges and trainings that bring together the fishing industry, managers, researchers and coastal communities.

SOS Pesca created an exchange program between Cuban, Colombian, American and Mexican fishery stakeholders to explore sustainable fisheries management strategies. As one of the fishermen said, "We can all relate in fishing, it's a common language, it doesn't matter the country or the system where you live." Cuban fishermen learned about utilizing spatial management tools, catch limits, co-management, fishery associations and other rights-based management approaches from cooperatives in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve in Quintana Roo, Mexico. They also visited other fishing communities in Cuba that were committed to sustainable fishing and had experience creating economic alternatives. Partners also attended an "Integrating Spatial Management with Fisheries Management" workshop in Boston to share experiences in Cuba, Mexico and the U.S.

After the end of SOS Pesca, EDF continued to organize international exchanges, including a fisheries exchange between Cuba and Belize in Belize. Both Caribbean countries share priorities to improve fisheries through science-based management and by engaging communities in the process, as reflected in their respective recent fisheries laws. Participants identified areas for bilateral collaboration to make fisheries more sustainable and to conserve marine ecosystems, highlighting opportunities for increasing profits at the dock. The exchange strengthened ties between governments, administrators and scientists, and built bonds between representatives of fishing communities in both countries.

In 2018, EDF conducted Cuba’s first sustainable fisheries management course at the University of Havana in collaboration with the Center for Marine Research, the Center for Fisheries Research and many other Cuban institutions. This intensive course, taught by Cuban and international professors, was replicated in 2019 and has trained over 50 scientists, managers, seafood industry leaders and conservation practitioners from around the country. Students used local data to draft conservation-minded fisheries management plans aimed at recovering depleted stocks. The course not only built technical skills but also built relationships, and is fostering unprecedented collaborations. Partners from research institutions, the fishing industry and the conservation realm are joining forces to conduct new research in support of their shared science and management priorities. Dr. Patricia Gonzalez, head of the Center for Marine Research, noted, “After 20 years of results since 2000, CIM and EDF should feel very proud of the collaboration they have built together, and this course is probably the most important joint achievement so far.”

Learning network

Building upon the results of SOS Pesca, Cuban officials, with support from EDF, are scaling up these and other efforts across the island through the new Learning Network for Sustainable Fisheries in Cuba. This network is a vehicle to create a common vision for the future of Cuban fisheries and coastal communities with a strong focus on fishermen participation. The network will share the best fisheries science available and local experiences from the fishing industry to spur collective action on the water.

This initiative found momentum during Cuba’s first Sustainable Fishing Forum, or Encuentro, in September 2018. The Encuentro brought together fisheries stakeholders from all over the island to diagnose the status and priorities of their fisheries and create a joint vision. The learning network is a platform to share experiences and replicate success at different scales, like the gradual recovery of the lane snapper fishery off of Cuba’s southwest coast, the country’s most important commercial finfish fishery. This success story resulted from the adoption of different management measures, including Cuba’s first catch limit for a finfish fishery.

The lessons learned from the lane snapper fishery can inform actions to recover other fisheries in Cuba and around the world. EDF will continue working to bring fishermen together around the same vision and continue scaling solutions for the benefit of the people and the ecosystems.