Let’s Talk About Shark Research in Cuba

posted: 07/03/15
by: Danny Clemens

In stark contrast to some of its neighbors, Cuba stands as an ecological gold mine. The environment has been the few beneficiaries of the United States' decades-long economic embargo against Cuba -- more than 50 years of isolation have largely spared Cuban marine ecosystems from the devastating impacts of post-industrialization seen almost everywhere else in the world.

Conservationists have been hard at work preserving Cuba's natural resources as far back as the eighteenth century. Before the imposition of the 1962 economic embargo, Cuban government authorities and scholars openly collaborated with researchers from Harvard and the Smithsonian Institution to better understand and protect rich Cuban ecosystems.

Shark swimming in Cuba
Ian Shive

"The Caribbean has, I think, 20 percent of the world's biodiversity of sharks and Cuba is the heart of that," environmental filmmaker Ian Shive said in a recent interview. "The oceans surrounding Cuba are like time capsules. You can go back and look at the Caribbean as it was 50 years ago."

In February, Shive and his team ventured down to Cuba to film "Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba", an hourlong special that will premiere on Discovery Channel next Tuesday evening.

The special follows a multinational team of American and Cuban scientists as they deploy satellite shark tagging for the first time in Cuba, technology that will help scientists better understand how more than 50 species of shark fit into marine ecosystems in Cuba. The collaboration is reportedly the first of its kind between Cuban and American shark researchers.

Other Cuban-American partnerships are becoming increasingly common: organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have established relationships with Cuban scientists and environmental advocates, and are working diligently to promote sustainable fishing and habitat protection on the island nation.

Cuban researcher measures a shark
Ian Shive

EDF is currently advising Cuban authorities drafting the country's first National Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Sharks. The plan includes provisions for partnerships with fishers and port employees, who will be involved in the collection of scientific data about sharks.

"Completing the NPOA is a pivotal step for shark conservation in Cuba and will provide a clear policy mandate for future regulatory and management actions taken to protect sharks," the organization's website states.

Established in 2007, the Trinational Initiative, a partnership between American, Cuban and Mexican marine scientists, has developed "a regional plan of action designed to preserve and protect our surrounding and shared waters and marine habitats". The group performs extensive research relating to coral reefs, sharks, turtles, marine mammals and fisheries management.

Researchers in a boat in Cuba
Ian Shive

Such partnerships will hopefully become more common thanks to normalization of diplomatic relations between Cuba and America, including the recent announcement that both countries will open embassies for the first time in half a century.

Some, however, worry that the normalization of relations could result in an influx of tourists into Cuba. A 2007 World Wildlife Fund report warns that "the prospect of sudden and massive growth in mass tourism when the U.S. embargo lifts" is one of the largest threats to wildlife in Cuba.

Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba premieres on Discovery Channel on Tuesday, July 7 at 9/8c. Check out a preview clip at the top of this post.


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