Cuba has a secret: The country's thousands of miles of coral reef ecosystems appear to be healthier than the other reefs found in Caribbean waters.
From preliminary assessments by Nature Conservancy scientists, the reefs do not appear to exhibit the widespread disease and mortality occurring in places like the Florida Keys, Jamaica and Mexico. Why is this? Cuba’s healthy reefs can thank limited coastal development as well as limited agricultural practices.
A study of the health of Cuba’s reefs can provide valuable insights into coral reef conservation for the Caribbean, and possibly, for the world.
In 2012, the Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund completed a three-week expedition of Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina National Park. Despite some localized coral bleaching, the research team was awed by what they found—reefs intact, teeming with fish and marine life.
This exploration has laid the foundation for Cuban scientists and officials, who will decide if the 840-square-mile park should be expanded. The Conservancy participated in a joint project to observe one of the region’s largest and healthiest colonies of the critically endangered coral species, elkhorn coral, an important reef-building coral that has declined precipitously across the Caribbean since the 1980s. Studying Cuba’s healthy elkhorn coral colonies will open a window to the past, allowing scientists and resource managers a rare opportunity to observe coral reefs that have retained a level of health not seen for decades in other parts of the Caribbean.
The Conservancy will lead the efforts for a comprehensive Cuba Conservation Blueprint with the support of Cuban conservation agencies. The focus will be on improved management of priority conservation areas. Will the potential opening of Cuba’s borders to U.S. tourism deliver a similar sentence to Cuba’s reefs as the many other Caribbean reefs that have seen extreme deterioration? It will require continued regulation and responsible tourism and development to avoid that fate, but strong partnerships with Cuban conservation organizations can help keep Cuba’s reefs pristine.