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Latin America Report

Can U.S.-Cuba Normalization Save Coral Reefs? On July 4, Scientists Said Sí Señor

Billy Causey has a keen eye for recreational boaters doing dumb things around vulnerable coral reefs in the Florida Keys.

Especially on heavy boating holidays like the Fourth of July.

“Lookee there,” says Causey as his boat heads out from Big Pine Key. He points to a nearby cluster of party boats. “A lot of them are up on the sea grasses and people are walking around on top of small colonies of coral.”

This is why Causey – the southeast regional director for the National Marine Sanctuary Program – invited a dozen Cuban environmental officials to snorkel last week on July 4 at Looe Key, a popular coral reef 25 miles east of Key West.

RELATED: Ocean Doctor Sees Past - And Future - For Coral Reefs In Cuba

Five years ago Causey’s counterparts from communist Cuba would have been personae non gratae in the U.S. – even more so on America’s Independence Day. But Washington and Havana have figured out they have vested interests in learning about coral reefs on each other’s sides of the Florida Straits – and about the challenges for preserving them.

“We’re certainly not against recreational use of the reefs,” says Causey, whose program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

“But our colleagues in Cuba are just starting to experience this kind of tourism coming into their area. They can see what we’re working with here, and we’ll both better understand what it means to our reefs.”

Our colleagues in Cuba are just starting to experience this kind of tourism coming into their area. They can see what we're working with here, and we'll both better understand what it means to our reefs. -Billy Causey

That ecological exchange is one of the clearest dividends to emerge from the 2014 normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Last fall the two countries signed a historic environmental cooperation agreement. Its chief aim is to save their coral reefs, which are a vital infrastructure of marine life – and therefore of the multi-billion-dollar tourism industries Florida and Cuba depend on.

“Coral reefs have been around for 600 million years,” Causey notes. But around the world – and especially in the Florida Straits – many are dying, thanks to climate change and human abuse, from ocean warming and acidification to overfishing. And overboating.

As they pass the party boats, Causey kiddingly warns his guests, “Tomorrow they’re coming to Cuba!”

No va a pasar” – It won’t happen – says Carlos Alberto Díaz, who heads Cuba’s National Center for Protected Areas.

But Díaz and the Cubans know it could happen, especially as more Americans visit the island. That's why Cuba has embarked on a widely applauded project to preserve a quarter of its coastal marine territory. "What they're doing gives me hope," says Causey, who believes the U.S. is learning from Cuba's management plan.


And the U.S. wants to help, via a “sister sanctuaries” pact between preserves like Cuba’s Guanahacabibes National Park and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. For the first time, U.S. and Cuban scientists are learning each other’s marine habitats – and how profoundly they interact.

“This is a historic moment for scientists in both countries," says Díaz. "It opens the door to the future survival of these reefs.”

Both Causey and the Cubans are reminded why as they dive in to snorkel at Looe Key. (See video below)

They see majestic coral, of course. Elkhorn, boulder, star and almost 40 other species. But as Causey plunges below he points out signs of coral ailments like black band and white pox bleaching.

Just as useful – and more encouraging – is seeing big blue parrot fish munching algae off the reef, their pecking remarkably audible underwater.

Parrot fish are important because rampant algae growth is suffocating coral reefs. Even so, parrot fish are being overfished in the Florida Straits. So replenishing their populations is crucial.

And that’s more possible now since researchers can see more clearly how parrot fish and their larvae drift between Cuba and the Keys.

Credit Tim Padgett / WLRN.org
NOAA's Billy Causey (right) and Cuban protected areas director Carlos Alberto Diaz enroute to Looe Key for snorkeling on July 4

“More important,” says Díaz, who is actually a forestry expert, “we’re learning from each other how to replant coral, like planting trees in forests.”

So Causey and the Cubans also make a point of snorkeling above an underwater nursery near Looe Key, where coral “seedlings” grow on tall metal frames anchored to the sea floor.

“We’re anxious to learn what makes Cuba a resilient place for corals as I remember them in the past,” says David Vaughan, who heads the Mote Marine Laboratory in the Keys. He and his Cuban counterparts are attempting to transplant coral strains from one side of the Straits to the other – which could be a huge step for preservation.

Vaughan knows that not so long ago both countries might have considered such scientific activity in each other’s submarine territory a form of spying.

“They’d have thought we were doing espionage,” he says. “Today, especially with our friends from the University of Havana, we can do all the coral science monitoring we want.”

U.S. and Cuban scientists actually initiated this relationship years before their countries normalized relations. Some might say normalization has aided the scientists – but the scientists might argue they planted the seeds for normalization.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.