Waters of the Florida Keys earned a co-starring role in the first major environmental pact between the United States and Cuba since tensions began easing in December.
Under the plan unsealed Oct. 5 at an international oceans conference in Chile, Cuba and the United States agree to work together on research and education to safeguard the region's biodiversity and marine protected areas in the Keys and Cuba.
"This is the first agreement to cooperate on environmental issues since the rapprochement in December," Dan Whittle, senior director of the Environmental Defense Fund's Cuba program, said Oct. 7 from Chile.
Under the pact, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary — which marks 25 years in November — and the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the northwest Gulf of Mexico will become sister sanctuaries with Guanahacabibes National Park and other Cuban marine protected areas.
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"The idea is to take the broad ecosystem approach to try to really capitalize on all the connections we have," said Billy Causey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's marine sanctuaries director for the Southeast Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean region.
"Ocean currents clearly connect the United States to Cuba and vice versa," Causey said. "There are threats to corals and fisheries both our countries are experiencing, so we'll work together over time to address these things."
For six decades, most federal agencies were barred from cooperating with their Cuban counterparts. As a non-governmental organization, the Environmental Defense Fund helped lay the groundwork for the oceans agreement signed Oct. 5.
"This is the first time in my lifetime that these [U.S. and Cuban environmental] agencies have formally talked together," Whittle said. President Obama declared in December that the U.S. was ending its "outdated approach" of isolating Cuba, and the two countries have each opened an embassy in the other's country.
"When that happened," Whittle said, "we were ready to go."
Causey previously briefed Cuban park managers on the Keys sanctuary system while on a 2011 mission arranged by the EDF. American and Cuban marine managers and scientists have met informally at international conferences over the past seven years, Causey said.
"Our Cuban colleagues have the same concerns we do and ask the same questions," Causey said. "We cannot be in a discussion for more than five minutes before people start asking: What are going to do about lionfish?"
Mooring buoys in Cuban marine parks copy a design pioneered by in the Keys by retired NOAA scientist John Halas of Key Largo. "John taught it to Mexican parks, and they took it to Cuba," Causey said.
"So many aspects of our marine environment are similar, from corals to migratory fish species," he said. "There are so many exciting things to look at."
Cuba has set a goal of setting aside a quarter of its nearshore waters as marine reserves, Whittle said. "That's an astoundingly large area specifically to protect coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves," he said.
"The Cubans are taking lessons learned from Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean," Whittle said. "Places that have not paid attention to these special habitats have paid the price."