Crown Jewel of Cuba’s Coral Reefs

Dr. Pina has been fortunate, receiving some financing and equipment from American foundations, like the Pew Charitable Trust, which gave him a marine fellowship in 2012, and environmental organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund, which organized a recent expedition here for a group of scientists from the United States. Three New York Times journalists accompanied the group.

But conducting marine research in Cuba is not easy. The country has only two principal research vessels: the 30-foot Itajara, the boat used by the recent expedition, and another, larger boat belonging to Havana University.

Travel and communication barriers often make collaborating with American scientists complicated. Microscopes, fishing gear like nets and hooks, refrigerators for storage, cameras and GPS are in short supply. And even mundane necessities like rope must be carefully rationed and frequently repaired.

“The blockade, what you call the embargo, has had a huge impact, especially in environmental science,” Dr. Pina said.

Like other researchers, he hopes that the recent warming of relations between Cuba and the United States will spur more scientific collaboration and exchange, a critical step for two countries whose ecosystems are closely interconnected, the environmental successes or missteps of one affecting the health and productivity of the other.

“Our two countries are connected by the water, and fish and other organisms move freely there,” said Jorge Angulo-Valdés, a senior scientist at Havana University’s Center for Marine Research who is also doing work in Jardines de la Reina and has collaborated with Dr. Pina. “They don’t need a visa to come down or go up.”

Warblers migrating south from New York take a needed break in Cuba’s Zapata Swamp. Sharks and manatees travel back and forth. Grouper eggs spawned here are eaten weeks or months later as adult fish in Miami Beach.

“When you have two areas that are 90 miles away, it’s not only possible but it’s probable that a considerable number of eggs and larvae are moving between Cuban and American reefs,” said Jake Kritzer, an ocean and fisheries expert at the Environmental Defense Fund who participated in the expedition. “Not just groupers, not just snapper, but parrot fish, damsel fish, corals, shrimps, all the little invertebrates and all the fishes that live on a reef.”

“What it means is that what we do in terms of fisheries management of Cuban reefs can have effects on the abundance of different populations on U.S. reefs, and vice versa,” he said.

On a recent morning in late May, the crew loaded up the Itajara with supplies for the day’s work: heavy fishing lines, hooks and bait, diving gear, coffee, water and beer.

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