Cuba's Jardines de la Reina

One of the more pristine coral ecosystems in the New World, the Jardines de la Reina, south of Cuba, was named by Christopher Columbus for Queen Isabella. This week, Anjani Ganase, marine biologist, wonders how the opening up of Cuban-US relations will affect the protected marine park that was once Fidel Castro’s favourite fishing ground. 
This feature was first published in the Tobago Newsday on Thursday, November 24, 2016
Follow Anjani on twitter @AnjGanase

Recent discussions between the USA and Cuba have begun to open up relations between the two countries. For the first time in over forty years, we consider the question how opening Cuba’s market might affect the rest of the Caribbean with respect to economic competition and trade deals. For others, there is concern that this dramatic shift in Cuba’s economy will impact its natural environment. Will Cuba be precipitated into the development faux pas experienced by the rest of the Caribbean? Or will Cuba, an observer over these years, be able to learn from everyone else’s mistakes, and be able to progress with future climates in mind? What might they now plan for the next 30 years, this island nation that was allowed to grow differently with long-term isolation.
The iconic Giant Grouper provides one of the most charismatic and important species for marine tourism in Jardines de La Reina National Park. Photo courtesy

When I was younger, I saw Cuba as a place of exile, a place where political ideology was not the democratic norm. It seemed a place so uninviting because so many people were willing to jump on unstable boats and risk their lives for a different kind of life.  The US embargo in the 1960’s stalled Cuba’s “development,” while the rest of the Caribbean continued building infrastructure, taking on the role of the vacation destination for the US. This fork in the road for Cuba shifted development focus to other forms of economic growth, such as agriculture, but also investment in scientific research, especially in healthcare and conservation.  If there were one advantage to a long-term regime that is pro-science and discovery, it would be this scientific freedom to imagine, research and experiment, a luxury that is rare in the scientific world.

“The future of our country has to be necessarily a future of men of science,” – Fidel Castro 1960

However, this freedom was a trade-off. Where most universities worldwide are heavily supported by government and international institutions as well as have intense cross border collaborations, the embargo has greatly limited Cuban scientists. There is limited connectivity to on-going international research and few opportunities for collaborations, not to mention the difficulty in acquiring necessary equipment. On the other hand, the limited access to technology also made the science creative and inventive.

It is unknown whether the protection of large tracts of marine and terrestrial areas, rich in biodiversity, under Castro occurred through the country’s need or isolation; whether large virgin tracts are the result of being left out of the world market or because of Castro’s genuine love for nature. I confess a particular interest in the protected archipelago 50 km off the south coast of Cuba that is home to the renowned coral reef - Jardines de la Reina (The Queen’s Gardens). These coral gardens were named by Christopher Columbus to honour Queen Isabella.

Surveillance of the hundreds of cays and waterways of Jardines de la Reina requires an innovative and cost-effective human and technology-based solution. Photo courtesy
The protected area is about 2000 km2, an area roughly seven times the size of Tobago. These were also Fidel Castro’s personal fishing grounds. Jardines de la Reina is considered to be one of the last remaining pristine reefs and one of the largest marine protected areas in the Caribbean. Since its declaration as a marine protected area in 1994, the park has been closed to fishing, except for lobster, and restricted use for diving and tour operations with an annual maximum quota of divers. Today, local ecologists team up with international conservation groups, such as Global Conservation, monitoring the health and protection of these coral reefs that is home to a high biodiversity of fish population that is on average of eight times greater than the rest of the Caribbean. Jardines de La Reina is teeming with top predators including grouper, snapper and hogfish, which are generally a targeted species in fisheries (Pina-Amargos et al. 2014). A high diversity and abundance of sharks can also be found in the park, a sight that is very rare elsewhere in the Caribbean today. 

Caribbean Reef Sharks are Critically Endangered and survive only in a few places on earth, one being Jardines de la Reina National Park. Photo courtesy

Much of the work done by scientists at the University of Havana is focussed on the movement of fish species in relation to their different life stages; it is well understood that the fish could roam large distances in open water, and inhabit different habitats at different stages of development; areas where they may not be protected. Therefore it is crucial to understand when and where they are most vulnerable. Further west along the Cuban coastline is the Zapata swamp, a protected wetland and home to the endemic Cuban crocodile. This location and other surrounding wetlands are likely to house many of these juvenile predators as shown by other studies on coral reef –mangrove connectivity.

Unfortunately, the coral reefs were not immune to the yellow band disease in the 1980s that infected much of the Caribbean branching coral communities, or the loss of the sea urchin, a major grazer on Caribbean coral reefs. Cuban reefs do not reflect the high hard coral cover that was prevalent during the 1970s and 80s, however the remoteness of these reefs and the low impact of nutrients and runoff from land development may have prevented further degradation in the years after, leaving small areas of healthy coral cover. It will be interesting to know how the fish communities have changed in the marine parks over the last 20 plus years, since the protection was established.

As the USA and Cuba begin to open up relations, there are finally opportunities for scientific collaboration and access by the international scientific community. These doors will also give access to business opportunities and visitors on the ground, something that Cuba’s economy may benefit from. However, what is key is whether the government can balance opportunity without compromising conservation. For Cuban coral reefs, even with the best management, there will undoubtedly be some effects on the reefs as accommodations for development occur. Hopefully, Cuba will continue slow and cautious in the face of the rapidly changing world.

For more information:

Roman, J., Kraska, J., (2016) Reboot Gitmo for U.S.-Cuba research diplomacy, vol 351, issue 6279

Pina-Amagós et al. (2014), Evidence for protection of targeted reef fish on the largest marine reserve in the Caribbean. PeerJ 2:e274


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