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January 2017 Issue

Transforming the US-Cuba Future
By Connecting a Shared Ocean

By Jean-Michel Cousteau,
Founder and President, Ocean Futures Society
and Trustee Emeritus, U.S. National Marine Sanctuary Foundation
Donald Baur,
Trustee, U.S. National Marine Sanctuary Foundation

At the confluence of the Gulf of Mexico, Western Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea, Cuba’s marine environment is a biological generator that powers the region’s ocean ecosystem. As a consequence, conservation of ocean species and places in the southeast U.S. and beyond is incomplete unless the U.S. engages with Cuba to strengthen the connections that sustain common ocean resources.

Those common resources, which physically tie the countries together, can create a path to help mend the profound disconnect that has characterized relations between Cuban and U.S. societies. By working together to protect the shared ocean ecosystem, it is possible for the people of these two countries to overcome what has separated them and recognize what they have in common.

I (Jean-Michel) visited Cuba on a filming expedition with my father aboard Calypso in 1985. One of our mission objectives was to compare the reefs of Cuba to those of Haiti, where we had just completed the film “Haiti: Waters of Sorrow”. Our subsequent film, “Cuba: Waters of Destiny”, showed the stark contrast. Cuba’s reefs were healthy: diverse, beautiful and richly populated with fish.

Protecting the health of Cuba’s reefs has benefits beyond that country. We were so pleased by U.S. President Barack Obama’s opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba and, in so doing, opening the door to collaboration on the environment. The timing could not have been better. Caribbean reefs are suffering from human insult at many levels. As we see these jewels of ocean vitality degrading, we are coming to understand how the waters around Cuba are critical to the region’s environmental health.

The political barriers erected between the U.S. and Cuba over the last 50 years stand in stark contrast to the close ecological connections that link the countries’ coasts. Currents flowing from the Caribbean through the Gulf of Mexico and into the Atlantic physically connect the Florida Keys to the coral reefs of Cuba. The reefs of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are downstream from Cuba’s and benefit from the offspring of Cuban fish and invertebrates that ocean currents convey to the sanctuary. Ensuring the health of Cuba’s coastal ecosystem is, therefore, an essential part of strengthening and protecting the ecological integrity of the Florida Keys and U.S. Atlantic Coast.

NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries recognized this connection between its sanctuaries in south Florida and the Gulf. Over the last few years, as the U.S.-Cuba relationship began to improve, National Marine Sanctuary scientists and managers seized the opportunity to engage with Cuba’s National Center for Protected Areas to find ways to explore and strengthen the connections between U.S. sanctuaries and Cuba’s extensive network of marine protected areas. In doing so, those professionals have built a personal relationship with their Cuban colleagues. This led to the signing of a historic agreement between the two governments in 2015 to develop strategies for linking their marine science, education and management efforts at “sister sanctuary” sites in the U.S. and Cuba (Sea Technology, December 2016).

In forming this coalition to benefit these shared marine resources, the U.S. and Cuba are showing how two countries are able to work together to create a positive future for their marine protected areas.

This is a promising new beginning, yet there is much work to be done. Marine scientists and managers from Cuba and the U.S. are seeking support for an ambitious plan of joint research at Guanahacabibes National Park in Cuba in the coming year to explore and characterize its coral reefs.

Joint expeditions are also proposed. The U.S. National Marine Sanctuary Foundation (NMSF), the national charitable partner of the Sanctuary System (of which we are a trustee emeritus and current trustee, respectively), has committed funding in support of the first expedition, planned for Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in summer 2017. NMSF will be exploring ways to generate support for future missions—Florida Keys has also been proposed—as well as science and monitoring initiatives, such as tracking wildlife traveling between sister sites.

Another unique and powerful opportunity exists for the U.S. and Cuba to work together by protecting and restoring the ecosystem of Guantánamo Bay.

Joe Roman and James Kraska recently proposed in Science that the base could be repurposed into a state-of-the-art research institution, peace park and marine sanctuary—a conservation area that promotes science, protects the marine environment and helps resolve conflicts between the nations. As a first step in returning the area to Cuba, the Guantánamo Peace Park could unite both nations in joint management, rather than serve as a wedge between them. By bringing together scientists, resource managers, artists and scholars, Guantánamo could help meet the challenges of climate change, mass extinction and declining coral reefs on a global scale.

Establishing a marine protected area as a place where nations can come together in peace and cooperation is not unprecedented. Israel and Jordan jointly established the Red Sea Peace Park in 1999 as part of their peace agreement. The Park is a place where the countries’ scientists and students have come together to learn from and protect a marine ecosystem while building cultural bridges through personal and professional relationships.

The U.S. and Cuba should use their newly established agreement for protecting special marine places and species by taking an important step forward and creating a place where the world can celebrate bilateral cooperation. Guantánamo Bay, once a symbol of division and misunderstanding, can be transformed through marine conservation.

The ocean unites people and nations. We commend the U.S. and Cuba for coming together through their sister sanctuaries. But don’t stop there. The new Donald Trump Administration could build on the nascent relationship between the two nations and save more than $400 million a year by closing Guantánamo Bay. Let us learn from those sanctuaries and use this opportunity to teach the world how the ocean’s special places can promote cooperation, reconciliation and peace.

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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.