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A Sagassum triggerfish in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico.

A Sagassum triggerfish in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico.

NOAA/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

U.S., Cuba to jointly protect, study marine life

Today two U.S. agencies shook hands with Cuba’s science ministry, agreeing to work together to manage and study marine protected areas.

During a visit to Havana, Kathryn Sullivan, the administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), signed a memorandum of understanding that brings the U.S. Flower Garden Banks and Florida Keys marine sanctuaries and two U.S. national parks, as well as Cuba’s Guanahacabibes National Park and an offshore reef area known as the Banco de San Antonio, under cooperative management.

The agreement is necessary, says Daniel Whittle, director of the Cuba program of the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., because key fish species, such as billfish and red grouper, cross international boundaries and need to be managed regionally to ensure their protection. Some of Cuba’s reefs and seagrass beds are healthier than those just 100 kilometers away in Florida, and joint baseline studies now likely as a result of this agreement may help clarify why. “This particular agreement is the highest profile [attempt] to truly remove the barriers to scientific [collaboration],” Whittle says.

The agreement grew out of meetings, in Florida in March and in Cuba in July, between marine sanctuary managers from both countries. They worked out a plan to characterize and map the protected areas; inventory species, particularly those that migrate across boundaries; and share research and data about the movements and control of invasive species, pollution, and pathogens. Managers hope to better protect those areas by setting science-based limits on diving, fishing, and research.

Practically, that should translate into more NOAA ships, equipment, and technology going to Cuba, which has a dearth of research resources, Whittle says. He says there’s a growing urgency to do this work, as Cuba is planning oil and gas exploration in the region. The agreement paves the way for developing strategies to mitigate any harmful effects of oil and gas extraction on local marine species.

Whittle is counting on the two countries to work quickly to implement the agreement. Since the thaw in Cuba-U.S. relations was achieved by executive order, he says, “anything can happen in 13 months” when a new U.S. president takes office. He hopes that by then, ties between the two countries “will be strong and deep enough that there is no turning back.”