For the first time in many years, I didn’t anticipate fireworks as the sun began to set on the 4th of July. Instead, I found myself in a car reminiscent of 1950s America, driving down the northern waterfront of Havana, Cuba.
Each night at sunset, hundreds of people gather along this stretch of Havana’s coast (known as the Malecón), fishermen casting their lines from atop the stone embankment, families conversing in melodic Cuban accents, and children flying kites in the ocean’s steady breeze.
“It’s a beautiful sight, but not so unusual,” someone beside me noted, gesturing out the window towards the colors and voices flying by. Visit a coastal city in the U.S., Mexico or Cuba at sunset, and you’ll see variations of this same ritual occur—the motions of a culture intrinsically linked to the sea.
Less than a month after President Trump announced changes to U.S.-Cuba policy (which limit U.S. travel to Cuba and in-country spending), my colleagues and I from Environmental Defense Fund’s Cuba Oceans program arrived in Havana for a week of environmental collaboration and exchange. Cuba’s biannual meeting on the environment and development, Cubambiente, brought together scientists, managers and practitioners from 31 of the world’s countries, many of which rely on the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean to support their economy, communities and culture.
The connectedness of ocean ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea lends itself well to this type of multi-national collaboration. Ocean currents control the movement of nutrients and marine life throughout the Gulf, and migratory species have long called both U.S. and Cuban waters home. Grouper and other species of reef fish, important to commercial and recreational fishermen in Florida, are born in Cuba’s protected waters, and longfin mako sharks found off of Cuba’s northern coast have been known to travel as far north as New Jersey. Even the two countries’ coral reefs, some of which reside a mere 90-miles from one another, are ecologically connected in many ways.
From a fish’s perspective, partnership and exchange come naturally. And looking at a topographic map with national boundaries removed, it’s easy to see the ecosystem through nature’s eye. Without city names or country borders, co-management of the region and its resources makes perfect sense.
At Cubambiente, Environmental Defense Fund worked with Cuban partners to discuss conservation and management strategies for fisheries and marine protected areas. We invited eight Cuban fishermen and community leaders from different provinces of the island to attend the Convention and to present their own work in marine conservation, showcasing innovative strategies for addressing overfishing and habitat degradation.
Thankfully, scientific and environmental collaboration is not expected to be impacted under the Administration’s recent policy changes. Existing collaborative efforts, such as the Sister Sanctuaries Memorandum of Understanding, an agreement between U.S. and Cuban governments to jointly manage the two countries’ marine protected areas, are expected to remain intact.
We are united by our connectedness to the sea, by our dependence on it, and by our fascination with what lies in its waters. Collaborative efforts to study, manage and protect ocean ecosystems will hopefully continue to strengthen moving forward, with the U.S. and Cuba leading the way.
This summer I am working as a Stanback Intern at Environmental Defense Fund, which included an opportunity to travel to Havana, Cuba. My sincere thanks are extended to the Stanback Internship Program, the Duke University Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, the Tinker Foundation, the Nicholas School of the Environment and Environmental Defense Fund for making this opportunity possible.