Will American Tourism Enhance or Endanger Cuban Coral Reefs?

Earlier this year President Obama met with Cuban leader Raul Castro at a summit in Panama, where they reached an agreement to reestablish formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. This action includes reinstating embassies for both countries and loosening restrictions on American travel to Cuba. More than 50 years ago an embargo was issued against Cuba as a result of its adoption of a socialist system, and American and Cuban officials have not met since. Because of the embargo American travel to Cuba has been restricted, requiring a traveler to meet one of 12 criteria. These include official government travel, family visits for Cuban-Americans, religious activities, and others. Travelers are still required to meet these criteria, however they no longer need an official license from the Treasury Department to go, meaning the enforcement of these criteria will be all but nonexistent. While tourism for the sake of tourism is still technically prohibited, the loosened restrictions will mean tourism will certainly increase. Many experts predict it is only a matter of time until the travel restrictions are completely eliminated.

Cuban Reefs – A Marine Biologist’s Dream

The Nature Conservancy, along with countless other conservation bodies, identifies Cuba’s coral reefs as healthier than any other in the Caribbean. Cuban reefs have been subject to less disease and mortality than reefs in the Florida Keys, Jamaica, Mexico, and other Caribbean nations, and as a result support an abundance of healthy marine life. These biodiversity hot-spots offer a glimpse into coral reefs of the past, and can serve as a reference point for conservation actions elsewhere. Cuba sits at the confluence of the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean. It serves as important spawning grounds for a plethora of marine life that then distributes throughout the three marine bodies.

At the southern end of Cuba lie the most pristine of Cuba’s reefs; the Gardens of the Queen. This area is one of over 100 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that have been proposed or are already in place by Cuban law. One of the most spectacular features of this particular MPA is the abundance of large predators, which is an extremely important factor in reef health. At the Gardens of the Queen, Caribbean reef sharks and large species of grouper are abound. For perspective, the rest of the world’s oceans have seen a 90% loss of large marine predators, including sharks, tuna, swordfish, and grouper, many of which are now critically endangered. And yet on these healthy Cuban reefs, they thrive. The world has already lost 25% of its coral reefs, with some areas expected to experience complete loss in the next couple of decades. Conversely, the Gardens of the Queen has achieved 30-50% growth in fish populations since its declaration as an MPA. This reef also shows strong resiliency, with the ability to bounce back quickly from isolated bleaching events that would potentially wipe out others.

A pristine reef at "Gardens of the Queen" in southern Cuba - photo courtesy of Noel Lopez Fernandez

A pristine reef at “Gardens of the Queen” in southern Cuba – photo courtesy of Noel Lopez Fernandez

Cuba’s Exceptional Sustainability Efforts

Many reef experts attribute Cuba’s pristine reefs to decades of isolation from mass tourism. Others argue that Cuba has in fact been subjected to mass tourism all along, just not by Americans. Many believe the healthy marine ecosystems are actually a result of exceptional environmental management practices by Cuba. As the first nation to establish an Academy of Sciences in the Western hemisphere in 1861, Cuba has a long history of scientific research collaboration, including with American partners. These scientific relationships have continued even since the embargo was established in 1962. The embargo may have been a blessing in an unforeseen way. Being isolated, Cuba was able to dedicate more time and resources to self-development, sustainability, and science. By putting economic value on the environment and heeding the advice of its scientists, Cuba has established and upheld strict environmental protection laws and regulations.

Ways New Cuban/American Diplomacy Could Affect the Reefs

Along with the pending changes in American access to Cuba come expectations for subsequent changes in Cuba’s economy, coastal infrastructure, and tourism activities. There are varying opinions among experts on whether these changes will have a positive or negative impact on the coral reefs. Clinton Edwards, a Research Associate for the University of California San Diego’s Coral Reef Ecology Lab, says that tourist operations themselves rarely cause direct damage to reefs, aside from the occasional irresponsible boat operator or diver. His concern is over an increase in coastal development resulting from the expected economic growth. “All the fishing, polluting and global-climate changing [humans] have done and will do does not even hold a candle to the reef degradation that results from improper coastal development”, Edwards expressed. With numerous examples of coastal development damage on reefs throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, Hawaii, Maldives and elsewhere, it’s reasonable to fear a similar fate for Cuba. Craig Quirolo, another reef expert and founder of Reef Relief, describes an example even closer to home. Off the north coast of Cuba is a small island called Cayo Cocos, which is home to many all-inclusive Spanish resorts. To accommodate the resorts, a massive causeway was constructed in 1981 to connect the island to the mainland, with few outlets for water flow. Consequently, the coral and mangrove ecosystems were severely damaged by sedimentation and sewage runoff, resulting in massive ecosystem die-offs. While strict Cuban environmental regulations have succeeded in protecting the reefs in the south, the Cayo Cocos example shows that Cuba is not immune to the pressures of tourism development.

A bleached coral from a 1998 expedition of Cayo Cocos in northern Cuba - photo courtesy of Craig Quirolo, ReefRelief

A bleached coral from a 1998 expedition of Cayo Cocos in northern Cuba – photo courtesy of Craig Quirolo, ReefRelief

Another positive outlook is based on the hope that the changes could open lines of communication that create new opportunities for conservation. The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation recently led a panel called “The Promise and Potential for Collaborative Marine Conservation with Cuba” for Capitol Hill Ocean Week. The panelists included an expert marine biologist, a U.S. Senator, two diplomats, and a lawyer, all with extensive experience with Cuban/U.S. relations and/or marine conservation. The general attitude amongst panelists regarding changes in Cuban marine health seemed very positive, with the expectation being an increase in marine conservation efforts and research opportunities, rather than a decline in reef health. Cuba may experience greater economic success from ecotourism, authentic tourist experiences, and showcasing how their environmental efforts have set them apart from more developed Caribbean nations with failing reef systems. These experts seemed confident in Cuba’s capability to handle an influx of American tourists (and dollars).

In Summary

A likely assumption is that the changes ahead for Cuba will result in a mixture of positive and negative reef impacts. As with the resorts on Cayo Cocos, some parts of the Cuban coastline will most certainly be developed. However, it would seem that Cuba has spent too many resources on the conservation of its wild areas, such as the Gardens of the Queen, to allow unsustainable development that would undo their hard work. So, what legacy will Americans leave on Cuba? Will it be shores lined with shining resorts? Or will it be a strong bilateral collaboration of scientists and managers to preserve what other nations will never get back?


“Cuba: Unspoiled Coral Reefs Awe Scientists.” The Nature Conservancy. Web. http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/caribbean/cuba/cubas-unspoiled-coral-reefs.xml

Gaskill, Melissa. “Cuba’s Coral Reefs.” Alert Diver Online. Web. http://www.alertdiver.com/Cubas-Coral-Reefs

Edwards, Clinton. University of California San Diego.  Coral Reef Ecology Lab. Personal communication, July 2015.

“The Gardens of the Queen.” Video: CBS News. Web. 18 Dec. 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhC1U8hj4Yk

“Obama’s Cuba details revealed, to make travel easier to island.”  CNN Politics. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.

“The Promise and Potential for Collaborative Marine Research With Cuba.” Video: National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. Web. 9 June 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sj5tvqdnKss

Quirolo, Craig. Reef Relief. Personal communication, July 2015.

“This is what the new U.S.-Cuba travel rules mean for Americans hoping to visit Cuba.” The Washington Post. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.


Feature Photo Courtesy of Noel Lopez Fernandez for Environmental Defense Fund. http://blogs.edf.org/edfish/2015/02/05/exploring-opportunities-for-ecosystem-based-management-of-u-s-nearshore-tropical-reef-fisheries/

Photo Two Courtesy of Craig Quirolo for Reef Relief. http://www.reefreliefarchive.org/cgi-bin/archive/index.cgi?action=view&link=03_Cuba_coral_reefs/08_Cuba_1997/01_Cayo_Cocos&image=14.jpg&img=8&search=Cayo%20cocos&cat=03_Cuba_coral_reefs&tt=&bool=and