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 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 Daniel Whittle, co-founder 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."

Since 2000, EDF has been working with both governments to strengthen and expand scientific exchange and environmental cooperation to protect our shared ocean. The restoration of diplomatic relations in 2015 provided new opportunities for collaboration and prompted the two governments to sign a series of formal agreements to accelerate and expand cooperation on the environmental issues.

EDF helped develop two of these landmark environmental agreements, signed in November 2015. The first pact pledged cooperation on the conservation and management of marine protected areas, while the second addressed a broader range of issues, including biodiversity conservation, climate change, fisheries management and marine pollution, among others. In January 2017, the two governments signed an agreement to cooperate on preventing and responding to oil spills, culminating several years of negotiations that EDF supported and participated in.

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 manmade threats such as overfishing, habitat degradation and climate change. The agreement on the conservation and management of marine protected areas, 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 five years earlier, we began facilitating a dialogue between officials and scientists from the United States and Cuba that laid the foundation for this agreement. The Florida Keys and Flower Garden Banks National Marine sanctuaries began 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.

Scientific collaboration remains a priority and, in 2017 and 2018, we collaborated with researchers from Cuban and U.S. universities and research centers to support the publication of a special issue on Cuban marine ecology and conservation of the Bulletin of Marine Science. This historic edition features 18 scholarly articles of new Cuban research including the results of collaborative research by teams of Cuban and American scientists.

Despite changes in U.S. policy and worsening relations between the two governments, progress is still being made toward bringing Cubans and Americans together around common causes to protect the marine waters and ecosystems that unite us. Deepening and expanding this type of science-based international cooperation will be critical as the challenges of climate change and other environmental problems grow.

U.S. and Cuba confer on oil spills

Vast untapped reserves of oil and gas 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 nearby 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’s Daniel Whittle.

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