Buck Rogers, Staff Writer
The isolation of Cuba from world economy has meant that the Cuban economy has not been as influenced by global corporations and governments as most other modern nations have. The country is a bit “behind the times” when it comes to cars, industry, technology, and basically all of the luxuries that we consider necessities in the typical consumer lifestyle of the 21st century. As a result, not only are the Cuban people seemingly trapped in time, but even their local ecosystems are lagging behind our ‘progress,’ and the abundant coral reefs surrounding this beautiful island in the Caribbean are incredibly vibrant and alive when compared to much of the ‘modern’ world’s coastal reefs.
The marine ecosystems surrounding Cuba have been under study by marine scientists such as David Guggenheim, president of the Washington-based conservation organization, Ocean Doctor. Guggenheim discovered that Cuba’s coral reefs are a perfect example of how the lack of use of fertilizers and pesticides can help conserve the fragile ecosystems of the oceans. Since Cuba could not afford agricultural chemicals, it was essentially forced into organic farming in the early 1990’s while the rest of the world ramped up their dependency on chemicals. As a result, less agro-chemical nutrient pollution has ended up in the ocean waters surrounding Cuba, which in turn means less ‘food’ for aquatic plants and algae that have been known to overgrow and kill coral reefs.
Guggenheim also attributes Cuba’s thriving marine ecosystem to the country’s strict environmental laws. Worldwide, on average, about 1 percent of ocean waters are marine protected areas. Comparatively, Cuba has protected about 25 percent of their waters.
The Caribbean marine ecosystem, historically known for some of the clearest waters and most colorful ocean life in the world, has been particularly affected by chemical pollution as well as rising ocean temperatures. For example, in 2005 alone, which was one of the hottest years since 1880, abnormally high sea surface temperatures resulted in coral bleaching and, thus, mortality. In the same year, record hurricane activity damaged reefs at many locations across the Caribbean. As a result “at many locations, over 90% of the coral reefs died, and at many 20-50% of the corals died.” (Source)
“Since 1970, about half of the coral cover in the region has disappeared, including almost 95 percent of the spectacular elkhorn coral.” (Source)
Is Cuba in Danger of Modern Infestation?
Cuba’s marine ecosystem excels to the point that even when coral bleaching occurs, the coral reefs are able to recover. US scientists such as Guggenheim are eager to learn from Cuban scientists and to study the healthy reefs, yet are also concerned about increased US involvement due to corporate and private interests with their eyes on Cuba. As the US starts to loosen travel restriction on Cuba, businesses are beginning to view it as a new and opportunistic travel destination, likely with little concern for maintaining the pristine marine environment. Money has a way of changing even the most steadfast environmental laws, and we can only hope that Cubans don’t set a price on their marine treasures.
“We’ve all seen the track record of the United States: we tend to mess things up that we love, and there are a lot of different interests now with their eyes on Cuba. So one of our projects is working with the Cubans on developing good decision tools for the future — and that includes environmental economics; helping the Cubans put a price on their natural ecosystems and to look at alternatives, like sustainable eco-tourism.” (Source)
The Crown Jewel of the Waters: Gardens of the Queen
Gardens of the Queen, the crown jewel of Caribbean waters located 50 miles off the south coast of Cuba, is an increasingly rare success story for corals. It would be in everyone’s interest to keep it that way. It gives scientists like Guggenheim hope that there’s still a future for coral reefs.
“If we can learn from this living laboratory how a healthy coral reef is supposed to look and function, then those are very valuable insights we can use for restoration efforts around the Caribbean.” (Source)
The biggest challenge moving forward may be making sure that protected areas, such as the Gardens of the Queen, remain protected.
This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow, which is posted below.
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