Cuba’s beautiful shores, sea-life, in peril from overfishing and increasing storms

Fish swim in Caleta Buena, a protected cove near Playa Girón, or the Bay of Pigs. Photo by Sofia Bergmann

Story by Sofia Bergmann 

Cuban scuba dive master and instructor Guillermo Contreras opens a fish book to the array of species that provide the thrill of his work, even in the midst of pollution and over fishing. From Caleta Buena beach near Playa Girón, also known as the Bay of Pigs, he points to a man at the bar several yards away showing how far the trash-filled water reached during the last hurricane.

“There are some that come here because it is different. There are things here that you cannot find in any other place,” says Contreras, 46, referring to the nearby shipwreck, and the unique species that come from the mixing of fresh and salt water in his bay.

Although Cuba is home to the world’s best-preserved reefs, the lightly regulated and damaging fishing methods often used on the island, along with human-induced pollution – mostly from across the Atlantic along the nearby U.S. coast – threaten species on and around the island that lack legal protection. Scientists are worried, and trying to figure out how, and who, to ask for help.

Video produced by Sofia Bergmann

“In Cuba, there does not exist a law for the protection of animals. But there are of course laws of protection, that protect certain areas,” says scientist Roberto Sánchez Medina of the Havana-based Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre — or Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Nature and the Man. “The reefs of Cuba are extremely important for its biodiversity,” Medina added.

Reefs house marine life and protect the coastline from damaging swells. More than 30 percent of Cuba’s natural resources and 60 endemic species are in the reefs surrounding the island.

Their endangerment and rising sea levels have led scientists to predict that 82 percent of Cuba’s 3,700-mile coastline will erode by 2100, causing sea levels to rise even more.

Due to Cuba’s limited agriculture and development, its reefs are in better shape than its island neighbors such as Haiti and Jamaica, according to The Nature Conservancy, an organization based in 72 countries that partners with governments and scientists to preserve ecosystems on over 100 million acres worldwide. The group has been working with Cuban marine life for more than 20 years in partnership with Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment.

But that doesn’t mean the reefs are immune from global issues such as the impacts of overpopulation in other places and climate change. Aside from The Nature Conservancy, Cuban-based organization SOS Pesca, is addressing reef preservation by promoting sustainable fishing off Cuba’s coast. The foundation was created four years ago to target sustainable fishing specifically at the local level in two major fishing communities, Guayabal and Playa Florida, both on the island’s southern coast.

At Caleta Buena cove, the aftermath of one of the many hurricanes that hit the Caribbean each year. Photo Courtesy of Guillermo Contreras

Some of its efforts include: Regulating the number of fish caught, which species, and imposing safe methods that help reduce the killing of other species accidentally picked up by nets are some of the key components to sustainable fishing.

The goal is to expand beyond what is now 24 percent of the island’s marine-protected areas, and to promote fishing cooperatives, an effort supported by the European Union and implemented by the Cuban National Center for Protected Areas, along with other international environmental organizations.

Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre, located in Miramar — a relatively wealthy suburb of Havana — is “the only official foundation in Cuba for the environment,” according to communications representative Miguel Rey. It is government-funded, and strives for environmental reform through a team of 35 workers and researchers, with outside collaborators including universities in the U.S. such as Yale, Northeastern and University of California, Berkley. Organizations like the National Geographic Society in Washington DC and the Environmental Defense Fund in New York are also in collaboration with the foundation.

While the government recognizes the urgency of climate change and collaborates with national and international organizations, issues such as poverty are its larger priorities, admits Rey. This is in part why the foundation avidly seeks support from abroad, namely the U.S.

As a result, for a country facing poverty with limited access to sustainable technology due to a paralyzing embargo imposed by the U.S., Cuba is struggling to thwart the impacts of climate change, says Medina. But efforts for sustainable communities and alternative fuel through Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez, and the emergence of organizations like SOS Pesca, provide incentive to turn things around.

There is still time, the scientists agree. For example, the Queen’s Garden reef surrounding a chain of islands off the coast of Camagüey and Ciego de Ávila, and the beautiful Varadero coastline, both world-renowned marine destinations in Cuba, are still a testament to the extent of its rich reefs. Contreras grieves the noticeable suffering of his stomping grounds, while still basking in its remaining vibrancy and diversity:

“Happy moments. There are many happy moments,” says Contreras, the sun-kissed, carefree dive master of Caleta Buena bay. He has been taking people diving since 2008, and while he cherishes his bay’s splendor, he cannot ignore the inevitable threat of fishing.

One of the many fishing boats docked across Havana Bay. Photo by Sofia Bergmann

“There are fishermen who break a lot, they break the food chain…There are some who know what they want and are selective, and those who don’t, and kill whatever,” says Contreras. He points to the disappearance of a dominant colorful sea snail, or caracole, as an example of fishing that caused the imbalance of marine prey and predators. Tourists are also known to scour the reefs and coastline to collect its colorful shells.

But overfishing isn’t the only threat to Cuba’s marine life and shores. The impact of storms and hurricanes also poses an enormous hazard to the islands in the Caribbean.

Scientist Medina explains that “we can prove that the magnitude of hurricanes has increased in recent years,” which is an effect of climate change, and “human activity is directly linked to climate change,” he says. But again, because of the U.S.-imposed embargo, climate and weather data are not shared with Cuban scientists, in effect cutting them off from much of the intellectual as well as the commercial world.

If Medina witnesses this from his desk at work, Contreras sees it every day, on the beach itself, where the effects are the most dramatic. “[Caleta Buena beach] used to have so many seahorses, but after a big storm, they all left,” says Contreras. After a large storm, he finds the entire beach, bar and lounge area flooded with “so many things floating. Shoes, sandals, containers.”

The reefs are suffering from his perspective, too. “There are those who go snorkeling who don’t know how. They break the corals with their fins, and pick things off the bottom they don’t need.” He adds that they “cover themselves” in coral-bleaching sunscreen that scientists have denounced in recent studies.

Although laws protecting specific marine species have yet to emerge, organizations like the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre, SOS Pesca and The Nature Conservancy are now collaborating with the Cuban government to promote the conservation of this celebrated and diverse ecosystem.

Contreras hopes it’s not too late. “There is great variety in the ecosystems, it’s good, things are still good…The sea is very beautiful,” he says. “But it is to be respected.”

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