Last night, I headed to the scintillating Symphony Space for this month's Secret Science Club North lecture featuring marine biologist Fernando Bretos, director of the Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program, curator of ecology at Miami's Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, and director of the Trinational Initiative for Marine Science and Conservation in the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean.
Mr Bretos began his lecture by noting that Americans are presented with a lot of misinformation about Cuba. He stated that while Cuba certainly does not have an ideal society, there are good things happening on the island. He stressed that problems are caused when countries refuse to talk.
Mr Bretos recounted a quick family history- his parents were sent to the United States during Operation 'Peter Pan', and their parents had to emigrate at a later date. When he first arrived in Cuba in 1999, he was petrified, but his Cuban colleagues embraced him and his work not only engaged his passion for conservation, but it also brought him closer to his roots. He currently works with an international three-person team, with one Cuban colleague and another based in Costa Rica. He joked that fish don't know politics.
Mr Bretos stated that the biggest problem facing Cuba's marine life is overfishing. Much of Cuba's territorial waters are protected, because Fidel Castro was an avid SCUBA diver (the CIA even tried to undo him with a tainted wetsuit). In particular, Castro set aside Jardines de la Reina as a protected site. Mr Bretos stressed the importance of science breaking down barriers between the United States and Cuba, using the term 'manatee diplomacy' to describe this joint scientific effort. He then showed an edited version of a CNN documentary about the cooperation between Cuban and American marine biologists.
Mr Bretos informed us that protecting Cuban coral reefs is crucial to the health of reefs throughout the Atlantic. Coral reefs in Florida are in trouble due to an influx of chemicals- fertilizer runoff, spilled motorboat fuel, even sunscreen residue in the waters. Marine resources migrate, larval organisms flow with the currents of the Gulf Stream. Mr Bretos said that, as a Floridian, he has a selfish interest in protecting the healthier reefs of Cuba because the health of Florida's reefs depends on the health of the reefs to the South.
Mr Bretos noted that Cuba is already changing since the White House announced a thaw in relations on 12/17/14. He said that no Cuban wants Cuba to become the next Cancún, but that building renovations are already occurring, and people are coming to terms with the once hard-to-imaging ending of the embargo. He used the analogy of the critically endangered Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer) to underscore the challenges of this change- the Cuban crocodile can interbreed with the more common, but still endangered, American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) and are in danger of genetic dilution. The only pure Cuban crocodiles are bred in crocodile farms.
Change will bring mass tourism, and Cuba needs to get it right. While science-based policy has worked for Cuba, can it cope with scale? Florida receives about 92 million tourists a year, while Cuba receives a mere 3 million, a figure which could very well increase by 5 to 6 million. Change will take a while, because there is still very little commercialization in Cuba, but people-to-people tourism is growing, with private residences run as tourist lodging (casas particulares) popping up throughout the country. Mr Bretos advised us that most trips to Cuba must involve educational exchange... one can't just drink rum and hit the beach.
Mr Bretos described his work as building bridges through conservation. Cuba has been likened to an 'accidental Eden', having avoided the development and tourism that have threatened other Caribbean islands. While Cuba's marine resources are relatively pristine, the interior hasn't fared so well. Cuba underwent three deforestation events due to the growing of sugarcane and the construction of sugar processing plants. Much of the deforested land has been overrun by an invasive African bush known as the marabú (Dichrostachys cinerea) since the 1990s when many farmers left the land and moved to the cities. Despite the deforestation and the growth of invasive species, Cuba is characterized by a high degree of endemism- about 50% of Cuba's plants are endemic, as are such animals as the shrewlike Cuban solenodon (Solenodon cubanus), the adaptable Cuban hutia (Capromys pilorides), and the bee-hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae)- the world's smallest bird.
Cuba has three thousand miles of coastline, the reefs are in good condition because of low tourism and progressive policy regarding reef protection. Reefs are low-nutrient ecosystems, and are very vulnerable to nitrogen-based fertilizers. While there was a brief period during which Russian advisors attempted to modernize Cuba's sugarcane production with artificial fertilizers, the fall of the USSR brought this to an end. Today, Cuban agriculture is 'organic' by necessity- the farmers simply cannot afford the fertilizer and pesticides. Cuban farmers are savvy, though, and a good deal of urban agriculture takes place.
The three major foci of Mr Bretos' work are research, science diplomacy, and educational travel/sustainable tourism. Quick, in-and-out tourism isn't good for Cubans, Mr Bretos joked that it is good for Canadians, though. Cuban tourism should be low scale and low intensity, with visitors staying in small family run casas particulares. Culturally and biologically, Cuba and the USA are closely linked, and tourism should acknowledge those connections.
In 1999, to determine the biological connections between Cuba and the US, Mr Bretos conducted an experiment which he has vowed never to repeat- he released 1,900 glass vials off the southern shore of Cuba, each containing a note asking the finder to inform him of the date and location at which the vial was found. While coral larvae are relatively short-lived, fish and lobster larvae are hardier... it's probable that most surviving coral larvae end up in the vicinity of the Yucatán while lobster larvae could make the passive journey to Florida's shores. Mr Bretos contrasted a map of Atlantic Ocean currents, illustrating Cuba's being interconnected to the rest of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, with an old Eastern Airlines map, in which Cuba was glaringly absent. He noted the time lost, the science lost, and the opportunities lost in the years in which the US and Cuba were diplomatically silent.
He then noted that working with the Cuban authorities is fun but frustrating- much of Cuban society is insular and bureaucratic. There are advantages to this- lands and waterways are centrally owned, science drives policy, the Cuban government is committed to protecting 25% of the country by 2020, with 16% of the country already protected. Cuba's three thousand miles of coastline are characterized by diverse biomes. Cuba has low population density, making conservation easier. Cuba has a strong scientific history, the Cuban Academy of Sciences was founded in 1861. Througout the late 20th century, Cuban scientists collaborated with their Russian colleagues, but Mr Bretos joked that they preferred working with Americans because the Russians always listed their names last in academic papers. There are disadvantages as well, primarily low pay- a typical marine biologist makes $25 per month, while the curse of marine biology is its high cost.
The subject of the talk then shifted to Cuba's coral reefs, with a focus on the Proyecto Tres Golfos, a study of benthic ecosystems in three of Cuba's gulfs, the Gulf of Guanahacabibes on the northwestern coast of Cuba, and the Gulf of Batabano and the Gulf of Ana Maria on the south shore. The southern gulfs are biologically diverse, being shallower than the northern waters. One of the major goals of the Proyecto Tres Golfos is to measure reef health over time. In order to determine the growth of coral over time, core samples are drilled out- the resultant holes are then plugged with concrete and the coral polyps grow back. If the holes aren't plugged, bacteria can cause problems to the coral colony. Mr Bretos related a funny story about Cuban ingenuity- his team didn't have a concrete plug for the first core sample they drilled, so a plug was improvised with a prophylactic device filled with concrete. The core samples from coral colonies can be 'read' like tree rings, and the history of the temperature and salinity of the water, and their effects on reef health, can be determined. In one particular instance, a 1.4 meter coral core sample proved to be 227 years old, allowing researchers to model climatic conditions over more than two centuries (by analyzing elemental ratios). In the case of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), the Cuban population is healthier than the Floridian population, which is effected by bleaching. The elkhorn corals of Cuba's southern waters are healthier than those of the northern waters.
The next topic of discussion was the green turtle, (Chelonia mydas), a herbivorous sea turtle which primarily feeds on sea grass. While Cubans do not eat turtle eggs, they do eat the meat of turtles, and females who return to shore to lay eggs are particularly vulnerable, and their deaths involve the destruction of their eggs. As part of the conservation effort, the beaches of Guanahacabibes are protected throughout the laying season and the incidence of turtle poaching has dropped from 30-35 turtles per year to 4-5 turtles annually. Cuba is a major nesting ground for not only green turtles but loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) turtles, with Cayo Largo being an important location. In 2012, a satellite tracking program was instituted, because it's impossible to protect turtles until you know where they go... for the record, two of the tagged green turtles made a beeline for Florida, then veered west toward Nicaragua. Loggerheads are more common in Florida's waters but do spend time off Cuba's shores.
The turtle discussion was followed up by a look at the problem of invasive lionfish in Atlantic waters. The lionfish are venomous, and have no predators in their unnatural environment, and some jerk(s) released them off North America's eastern seaboard. They then spread north along the US coast before spreading south throughout the entire Carribbean and Gulf of Mexico. It was hoped that the healthy ecosystem of Los Jardines de la Reina, with its population of large predatory fish, would be a site of biotic resistance to the lionish invasion, but two studies of predation on lionfish (by groupers, for instance) were contradictory. In continuous reefs, lionfish are very difficult to remove, but they can be eliminated from small 'patch' reefs. Lionfish are destructive, and stomach content studies need to be conducted to see what native organisms they imperil.
Mr Bretos then turned to a more optimistic subject- the creation of the Trinational Institute for Marine Science, a joint venture of the three nations bordering the Gulf of Mexico- the United States, Mexico, and Cuba. The Trinational Institute looks at fisheries and conservation in a regional context, and one of its ventures is a 'sister park' initiative stretching from the Florida Keys to Guanahacabibes. Protecting the marine environment is the easiest avenue for cooperation between the US and Cuba... science builds bridges.
Tourism has risen 17% in Cuba in the past year, and there is an expected wave of tourists. More tourism means more pressure on the environment. Cuba has instituted environmental protection laws... In 1995, Ley 81, which mandates that Cuba remains the most environmentally sound country in the Caribbean, was passed. Ley 212 prohibits construction in coastal areas without approval from seven government agencies. The System of Protected Areas includes 15% of the insular shelf, 35% of coral reefs, 31% of seagrass beds, 27% of mangrove swamps, and 16 fish spawning sites.
Mr Bretos ended his talk with a simultaneously encouraging and worrying image, a photograph of a Carnival Cruise Lines ship sailing into Havana's harbor. After a brief digression about a Cuban policy of allowing Cuban-Americans to enter Cuba by plane, but prohibiting them from entering by boat (a policy which only took two weeks to change, which is lightning speed in Cuba's bureaucracy), he noted that the all-inclusive nature of cruises tends to limit currency from flowing to the locals. Cuba needs hard currency, and it doesn't have the luxury of being able to refuse US tourist dollars. That being said, the revenue must end up in the hands of local people. In one instance, a village of turtle hunters (since 1961, turtles were seen as a resource, and there was a commercial sea turtle fishery until 1991, when turtle hunting was banned) transitioned into ecotourism, and casas particulares opened up in the town.
Mr Bertos' passion for conservation was evident throughout his talk, as was his pleasure in being able to find his roots in the country his parents had left as children. In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience asked him if the BP Gulf Oil Spill had effected Cuba's waters, and Mr Bretos indicated that any effects were minimal, most of the oil and dispersants flowed elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. There were three attempts to drill for oil off the northwestern coast of Cuba, but they were unproductive. Regarding coral bleaching, one factor that may be protecting Cuba's coral is hurricanes, which lower water temperatures, which reduces bleaching. Another question regarded dive centers in Cuba- the biggest problem facing Cuba's marine life is overfishing. This problem may be offset by fostering tourism, with fisherman being able to shift their focus to the new industry. Cuba has no real export market for fish, they are caught for local consumption. Dr Bretos suggested a 'best practices' workshop for dive operators. Other questions regarded Cuba's mineral wealth- the island had nickel mines, but they are not productive anymore. Internet access is spotty, but if conditions improve, the educated Cuban population could start a decent tech industry. Regarding defections, the two individuals he knew who defected to the US did so because they were financially unable to work as marine biologists. Another individual asked about the Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker, but the search for surviving specimens is inconclusive. A question about apex predators in Cuban waters was answered- there are sharks in Los Jardines de la Reina, but they are rare elsewhere. Last year, Cuba instituted a shark management plan. A question about the effects of fertilizers on coral elicited the response that nitrogen isotopes in coral near agricultural runoff is the key to finding out the bad effects of nitrogenous fertilizers on reefs. The Florida aquifer is like a giant underground river that runs from south to north, draining into Florida Bay and dumping nitrogen and phosphorous on unsuspecting marine life. The final question regarded Mr Bretos' personal history as a conservationist... he had wanted to be a conservationist since the age of 16, and pursued research in Panama and Australia. He noted that conservation is 'people work', not just biological research. As someone who had the privilege of sitting through his lecture, I'll have to note that he's very, very good at people work, and the turtles and coral and fishes are benefiting.
Kudos to Mr Bertos, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of Symphony Space. The Secret Science Club North has once again delivered a fantastic night of entertainment and education.