Cuban and American Environmentalists meet


Cuban and American scientists recently gathered at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., and Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota for a groundbreaking exchange of science and ideas—the first of its kind in years to highlight the importance of working together on ocean conservation and shared waters. The meetings revealed that there is no time to waste in confronting environmental problems that observe no borders.

Many Americans know that the coral reefs off the coast of Cuba hold myriad rare and beautiful plant and animal species, a storehouse of biodiversity for the tropical Caribbean. Few may realize, however, just how critical Cuba is to the health of the land and sea here in the United States. For example, each spring the majority of east coast warblers and other songbirds assemble in a specific area east of Havana before flying across the Straits of Florida en masse. In the fall, they reverse course on the southward migration through Cuba and beyond. Most raptors do likewise, as do many shorebirds and wading birds. Habitat conditions in Cuba directly affect bird populations in the United States.

A high proportion of marine fish are similarly tied to Cuba and the northern Caribbean. Floating larvae of many snappers and groupers spawn in Cuba and are carried by ocean currents to U.S. waters, where they support lucrative commercial and recreational fisheries. Many of the game fish prized in the United States also grow and feed in Cuban waters, including mahi, wahoo, tunas, billfishes and many threatened species of sharks. In addition, populations of sea turtles, manatees and other protected species call shared waters home. How Cuba manages the environment in its “backyard” directly affects the health of ecosystems and coastal economies in the United States, and vice versa.

When Cuban and American scientists met last month they reviewed recent findings about the major threat posed by the invasion of Pacific red lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. These non-native fish are venomous, eat nearly anything, and have few potential predators; their impact on native fishes and marine ecosystems can be devastating. Lionfish are breeding prodigiously from Florida to North Carolina. American scientists were aware that this problem had spread to the Bahamas but were unprepared for reports from Cuban colleagues showing that lionfish have now spread all around Cuba, too. Given Cuba’s central location in the northern Caribbean, this is bad news indeed. The lionfish example serves as a portent of challenges ahead, as new and potentially problematic species spread and as familiar organisms change their locations and habits in response to a seascape changing with global warming. Warmer, more acid and higher seas threaten shared coral reefs and other marine and even terrestrial ecosystems.

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Photo: Lionfish at

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