As we are reaching a climax in the diplomatic issues between Cuba and the United States, Cuba is now allowing Mote Marine Laboratory to research Coral in the area. This could possibly improves the health of Florida’s coral reef tract.  The scientists first traveled to Cuba in 2015 and are now learning more about Cuba’s largely understudied reefs.

Cuba and the United States are connected by the Gulf of Mexico and Straits of Florida, as you all well know. So knowing this, animals like sharks and other fishes, sea turtles and marine mammals migrate between the U.S. and Cuba, and both nations host coral reefs, which are often called “rainforests of the sea.”

The two nations also provide homes to significant marine protected areas and have important natural resources that need further scientific study to support management and conservation. However, Cuba — which has protected 20 percent of its coastal environment and has experienced slower coastal development than many other areas — stands out among the Gulf and Caribbean nations for its near-pristine ecosystems and wealth of unsolved scientific mysteries.

Many of Cuba’s coral reefs have survived and as a result, producing beautiful stands of elkhorn corals that are listed as threatened in the U.S. despite the fact that most reefs in the Caribbean have declined. It has not yet been explained why so many reefs are healthier in Cuba  than in other nations. It is also unknown if Cuba has ever exchanged reef larvae with other nations.

For over ten years, scientists from Mote have been traveling to Cuba and forging collaborations with Cuban institutions, often with the vital assistance of EDF staff who have been developing local relationships in Cuba for more than 15 years. Mote is an independent, nonprofit institution not subject to as many Cuba travel restrictions placed on U.S. state and federal institutions. The Lab’s top-notch scientists have been working with Cuban partners to study the nation’s sharks and rays, other fishes, marine mammals and corals — and February’s expedition advanced their work in exciting ways.

“This expedition allowed U.S. and Cuban scientists to achieve some of the goals we’ve been dreaming about for years,” said Dr. Robert Hueter, Director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory. “For instance, we had been trying to get permission to deploy satellite tags on sharks in Cuba for at least five years, and we were finally given approval to do that on this expedition, thanks in large part to the great partnership with our Cuban colleagues and EDF. It all came together beautifully.”

“Trustful collaboration is the way to go if we want to preserve our shared resources,” said Cuban partner Dr. Jorge Angulo Valdes, Director of Conservation at the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research. “This expedition showed how much we can accomplish together.”

“Some of the coral species that we have real problems within the Florida Keys like some of the Elkhorn corals and Staghorn corals that are listed as threatened under the endangered species act; some of these are doing really, really well in Cuba and we really want to know why,” said Mote Senior Scientist Kim Ritchie, Ph.D.

“Cuba coral reefs are kind of a black box of genetic information.  So scientists have all of this genetic information on these coral species around the Caribbean, but they haven’t gotten the information from Cuban corals,” Ritchie stated. “So, once we get some of that information we’ll be able to see where these healthy corals in Cuba are coming from and where are they going when they disperse their larvae.”

This really is an incredible opportunity, as we expand our time and research to Cuba’s coral reefs, we are gaining invaluable information. That information will later benefit Florida’s reefs, and maybe even other reefs! The more we learn about our reefs, the better we understand them and are prepared for what is to come with our reefs. Cuba has strong environmental policies that help play a part in the overall health of the coral reefs there. There is around 20% of marine areas in Cuba that are set aside as a protected area. Ritchie was a part of a diving team on an expedition back in February of 2015. They were sent to  observe pristine coral reefs in the Garden of the Queen region. The corals there are adjacent to deeper water with a moving current making them less susceptible to the heat stress corals in the Florida Keys face.  Healthy corals live in harmony, or symbiosis, with microorganisms like bacteria that produces antibiotics.  “And one thing that we see in the Florida Keys is when the temperatures are higher when there’s other stress factors, a lot of these antibiotic beneficial bacteria association with the corals go away and they’re replaced with pathogenic bacteria,” said Ritchie.  Those conditions are largely responsible for coral bleaching.vCuba’s corals also  are more likely to  be more remote and harder to access by anglers and divers.

The reason to recover this story is the fact that they are soon to return. Mote scientists are planning a return trip to the island later this year. Ritchie and the other researchers are really hoping to get permission to take back samples of coral from Cuba to study microbes living on the coral surface and perhaps find clues for helping Florida’s coral.  This is a great advancement for Cuba and Florida relations, as well as researching opportunities. Let’s hope that this will provide us with a great multitude of answers for our questions about coral reefs!

Mote researchers also traveled to Cuba to place the very first transmitters on sharks living in the Cuban waters. This was actually documented on the Discovery Channel, as it first happened. The Gulf and Caribbean ecoregion hosts about 20 percent of the world’s shark biodiversity, with Cuba at the epicenter, but scientists know relatively little about the status of shark populations in Cuban waters and what impacts they face from the nation’s fisheries. Over the past 40 years, the abundance of many shark species worldwide has declined dramatically. Rebuilding shark populations benefits the ecosystem and local economies because sharks are essential to the fishing industry and to ecotourism and are critical for proper ecological balance of life in the sea.