HAVANA, Cuba, Wednesday October 28, 2015 – The Cuban government, in collaboration with a US environmental group, has launched a long-term plan to protect shark populations around its shores.
The initiative, reached through two years of collaborative research with the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), will impose size and capture limits on fishermen, create closed seasons for shark-fishing, and set aside protected areas, according to officials.
Scientists believe that nearly 100 of the world’s 500 shark species swim in Cuban waters, sustained by relatively healthy coral reefs, the EDF says.
The journal Nature reports that roughly half of the 100 species of shark resident in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico have been seen in Cuban waters, moreover. Some, such as the whitetip (Carcharhinus longimanus) and longfin mako (Isurus paucus), have experienced sharp declines elsewhere.
“Cuba is a kind of biodiversity epicentre for sharks,” says Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida, who is one of those working with the Cuban scientists.
“The science is not at a level yet to do rigorous stock estimates, but we are moving in that direction with this plan.”
The EDF says protecting shark populations is also good business, as ecotourism is growing and a country’s marine resources are an important asset.
“Cuba is considered the crown jewel of the Caribbean, principally because of its incredible coral reef ecosystems, its mangroves, its sea grasses,” said Daniel Whittle, EDF’s Cuba program director. “Healthy sharks mean healthy corals. Healthy corals mean healthy sharks.”
Fishing in Cuba and overfishing and environmental degradation elsewhere in the Caribbean have taken their toll, which is why conservation needs to be international, Whittle added.
The Caribbean country already has protective measures in place such as banning “finning,” the harvesting of sharks only for their fins.
The new initiative “will empower scientists in Cuba … who will work directly with fishermen. That information will be used by managers to develop new closed areas that sharks need for nurseries, management measures to protect juveniles, rebuild populations and help sustain them,” said Whittle.
Most of what is known about Cuba’s shark populations has come from the fishing industry, which often captures sharks as by-products of its regular operations, according to Nature.
The Cuban government has already established marine protected areas along 20 percent of its coastline and is planning to expand that network within the 70,000 square kilometres of its coastal fishery. It has also begun to regulate the equipment used in fishing.
“It’s a big step forward for Cuba and the region,” said Jorge Angulo-Valdés, head of the Marine Conservation Group at the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research and a visiting professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
“It’s time for us to get together, identify common goals in resource management and make them work.”
Both US and Cuban scientists say that the collaboration is helping to pave the way for more formal cooperation now that the two cold-war foes have re-established political relations.
In April, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sent a research vessel on a cruise around the island with Cuban scientists.
Earlier this month, US secretary of state John Kerry and Cuban officials announced at an oceans conference in Chile that the two nations were finalizing plans to cooperate on research, education and management in marine protected areas.
Cuba is now planning a regional plan for shark conservation, according to BBC News.