U.S. and Cuba find common ground

Teaming up to protect vital marine resources

Cooperation is as critical to U.S. interests as it is to Cuba's. Cuban waters provide vital spawning and nursery grounds for snapper, grouper and other commercially important reef fish in the United States. Cuba is also the major stopover point on migration routes to and from South America for most of the familiar songbirds along the U.S. East Coast. Through recent shark tagging research we are also learning how different shark species traverse Atlantic waters traveling between the U.S., Cuba and other countries.

"Though the United States and Cuba share many ecological resources, we have different ways of managing them," says EDF attorney Dan Whittle, director of our Cuba program. "Fishing, coastal development and offshore oil and gas exploration in Cuba can have huge impacts on the United States and vice-versa."

For over 15 years, EDF has been working with both governments to strengthen and expand scientific exchange and environmental cooperation to protect our shared ocean. Since the normalizing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba began in December 2014, there has been more opportunity for collaboration on these issues than ever before, and agreements on the environment are paving the way for further bilateral cooperation.

On both sides we support U.S. – Cuban dialogue and cooperation on the environment, and helped broker two landmark environmental agreements between the countries in 2015. The "Sister Sanctuaries Agreement" and the "Environmental Accord" were two of the first three agreements signed between the countries in over half a century. In 2017, the two governments signed another binding agreement to cooperate on preventing and responding to oil spills after years of exchange guided by EDF.

Protecting marine parks together

In November 2015, the two governments came together in Havana to sign a historic agreement to protect vital marine ecosystems from rising manmade threats such as overfishing, habitat damage and climate change. The agreement on "Sister Sanctuaries" which EDF helped broker, commits the two countries to collaborating on science, outreach and education regarding marine protected areas in the Gulf of Mexico. Starting 5 years earlier we began facilitating a dialogue between officials and scientists from the United States and Cuba that laid the foundation for this agreement. Now, Florida Keys and Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuaries are partnering with Guanahacabibes and Banco de San Antonio National Parks in Cuba to learn from each other on how to protect their similarly spectacular coral reef ecosystems.

Supporting scientific collaboration

Less than a week after the sister sanctuaries agreement was signed, Cuban officials arrived in Washington, D.C. to sign a second accord aimed at expanding environmental cooperation and scientific exchange between the two countries. This action also follows years of advocacy by EDF and other NGOs to ask the two governments to remove barriers to scientific exchange and environmental cooperation. Together we called upon President Obama to enter into an agreement with the Cuban government "that would allow scientists and environmentalists of both countries to freely travel, to jointly conduct research, and to work on approved projects." This accord is a major step in that direction. So much progress has been made in the past two years toward bringing Cubans and Americans together around common causes through protecting the marine waters and ecosystems that unite, not divide us.

U.S. and Cuba confer on oil spills

Vast untapped reserves of "black gold" are thought to lie off Cuba's north shore. For the United States, Cuba and Mexico, the risks of drilling in deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico are enormous. In 2012 Cuba began off shore oil exploration and experts warn that a large spill in Cuban waters could be more catastrophic than the BP disaster, given the three countries' nearby networks of coastal communities and sensitive marine ecosystems.

That's why EDF started a conversation between Cuban and U.S. officials with the aim of ensuring that drilling is done safely. In 2011, EDF led an unprecedented delegation to Cuba, including former EPA administrator Bill Reilly, co-chairman of the BP oil spill commission. The goal was to assess Cuba's offshore oil and gas plans and to share lessons learned about the risks of offshore drilling with Cuban officials. "The trip put the spotlight on the lack of dialogue between the United States and Cuba on how to prepare and respond to an oil spill in Cuban waters," says Lee Hunt, head of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, who helped organize the trip. "EDF has proved itself as an influential voice and broker for environmental diplomacy."

At our urging, initial cooperation began when the Obama Administration agreed to pre-authorize some U.S.-based companies to assist in preventing and containing major oil spills in Cuban waters. Then, in January 2017, the two countries met a major milestone and signed an oil spill pact to jointly prevent, contain and clean up oil and other toxic spills in the Gulf of Mexico. "This agreement is especially important for people living in coastal communities along the northern coast of Cuba and southern Florida because it provides a strong measure of protection against future disasters," says EDF Cuba program director, Dan Whittle.

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