Named for Queen Isabella of Spain 500 years ago by Christopher Columbus, the Gardens of the Queen (Jardines de la Reina) archipelago is a string of hundreds of mangrove-fringed islets and cays stretching over 150 kilometers along Cuba's southeastern coast. Still nearly devoid of human footprints today, the area is "a window into the Caribbean as it looked in Columbus' time," says Dan Whittle, director of EDF's Cuba program.
In the 1990s, the Cuban government set aside the Gardens as an 850-square-mile marine reserve—one of the biggest in the Caribbean—equivalent to 411,400 football fields–as part of a planned island-wide network designed with help from EDF. With commercial fishing and other activities restricted, the area, which is now a national park, provides a baseline for gauging the health of sea life and habitats in adjacent areas where such activities are not curtailed. Its protection has international importance by providing connectivity between marine ecosystems across the Caribbean region.
This highly productive and biodiverse area contains some of the most pristine coral reefs left in the Caribbean and remains a haven for fish and other sea life. The reserve has large populations of sea turtles, including hawksbill and green, an abundance of sharks, huge groupers and thick seagrass meadows—all indicating a healthy, balanced ecosystem.
Cuba's beauty is not accidental
Cuba's network of more than 250 natural reserves on both land and sea - representing 20% of its territory- is not a coincidence. Over several decades Cuban authorities have developed a range of policies and programs that demonstrate a long-term commitment to conserve the island's resources for the benefit of Cuban people.
This pledge is embodied through the National System of Protected Areas of Cuba (SNAP). EDF works with SNAP to strengthen the design and management of marine reserves. Officials from SNAP partnered with EDF and others to establish 2 new marine reserves through a community-based project called SOS Pesca. This project brought together park rangers, scientists, fishers and community members to collect baseline data and develop management plans for Ojo de Agua and Macurije-Santa María Wildlife Refuges. The purpose of these reserves was clear for everyone, and as one fisher stated, "the marine protected area is like a fish nursery and the regulations are like the laws that protect children. The fish are born, grow and reproduce there; and it benefits all of us."
The efforts conserve critical marine habitats that have played an important role in fostering environmental cooperation between Cuba, the U.S. and other countries within the Caribbean region. The "Sister Sanctuaries Agreement" and the "Environmental Accord" are two recent examples of important progress towards greater U.S.-Cuba collaboration.
Fishermen help protect resources
Marine reserves are a key element of our vision for Cuban marine and coastal sustainability. Our work aims to integrate sustainable fishing strategies with marine reserves – supporting the goals of management agencies and working together with communities to protect critical habitats and reap the benefits.
Pairing habitat protection with sustainable fishing is the best way to recover fisheries.Jake Kritzer, Director, Diagnostics & Design
However, illegal fishing and conflicts with access to the resources are major threats to protected areas throughout the Caribbean. In the Gardens of the Queen and other marine reserves, enforcement and compliance are important issues. For many countries, including Cuba, patrol boats are prohibitively expensive. But, with the right incentives, fishermen can help conserve the resource, and enforce the rules.
Through the SOS Pesca project, EDF promoted a dialogue between fishing communities and government officials to help bridge this gap. This project involved the fishing communities of Playa Florida and Guayabal along the southeastern shelf of the island, an area teeming with marine life and responsible for about 40% of fish production for the entire country.
In one exchange, fishermen from these two communities visited other fishers living within marine reserves in Quintana Roo, Mexico. Cuban participants were introduced to a community-based system, where Mexican fishing cooperatives hold the rights to fish in certain areas and designated small no-take reserves to protect lobster habitat and replenish their fishing grounds. Because of their secure access to fish, they became stewards and guardians of these reserves and their sustained catch is proof that it is working.
While contexts are different in these countries, the shared value of linking fisheries management, communities and marine protected areas emerged from the exchange. Now, as a result of SOS Pesca, we are working with scientists and managers to study the potential economic and biological benefits of recovering fish populations and what that means for Cuba.