Marine protected areas in Cuba

Keys to ecosystem health and sustainable fishing

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 keys 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—the biggest in the Caribbean–as part of a planned island-wide network designed with help from EDF. With commercial fishing and other damaging activities restricted, the area, now a national park, provides a baseline for gauging the health of sea life and habitat in adjacent areas where such activities are not curtailed.

With no inhabitants and only several hundred divers allowed each year, this highly productive, 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, and an abundance of sharks, huge groupers and thick seagrass meadows—all indicating an ecosystem in balance.

We’re working with our Cuban partners to conduct research and develop management strategies for the Gardens. The reserve, together with the Canarreos archipelago on the southern rim of the Gulf of Batabano, has been proposed as a World Heritage Site. This 500-mile-long stretch, which includes nine protected areas, is the subject of a five-year Global Environmental Facility (GEF) project on ecological reserves and coral reefs.

Pairing marine reserves with incentives for fishermen

Illegal fishing and conflicts with fishermen are major threats to protected areas throughout the Caribbean. In the Gardens, enforcement is a big issue. For cash-strapped Cuba, patrol boats are prohibitively expensive. But, with the right incentives, fishermen can be persuaded to help conserve the resource. For example, by granting fisherman the rights to fish on the edges of protected areas where abundant fish spill over into fishing grounds, they can become partners instead of adversaries.

We’re also working with scientists and managers to study new ways to sustain fish populations. Recently Cuba’s Ministry of Fisheries decided to eliminate destructive fishing nets.

Our work aims to integrate management of mangroves, wetlands and sea-turtle nesting sites in protected areas while working with fishermen to rebuild spiny lobster and reef fish populations. “Pairing habitat protection with sustainable fishing is the best way to recover fisheries,” says Denise Choy Stetten, EDF’s Latin America and Caribbean program manager.