Florida Keys

Cuba overhauls its fishing regulations. Florida Keys and East Coast to benefit.

The Cuban government enacted sweeping reforms to its fishing regulations over the weekend, a move being praised by U.S. environmentalists for what they expect to be a positive domino effect on fisheries from the Florida Keys all the way up the East Coast.

Advocates of the overhaul say it will help coordination on fisheries management with other countries, including the United States.

The reforms are the first changes to Cuba’s fishing regulations in 20 years, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, the environmental group that announced them Monday and helped shape some of the new policies.

“It’s important for the people of Cuba, and also a significant step in international efforts, to preserve some of the world’s most important coral reefs, sharks, rays and other marine life,” Dan Whittle, Environmental Defense Fund’s Caribbean director, said in a statement.

The overhaul of Cuba’s fishing regulations should help preserve the coral reefs in the Florida Keys, say some U.S. environmentalists. A hogfish swims past a brain coral in the Florida Keys.

The laws are aimed at curtailing illegal fishing and the recovery of declining fish populations, including some snapper and grouper species.

Whittle, in an interview, said there is an emphasis on enforcing the new rules through fines, but also educating commercial and recreational anglers that protecting fishing stocks is essential to the preservation of their industry.

“It’s a combination of enforcement and getting fishermen on board,” Whittle said.

Cuban fisheries managers under the law will use a “data-limited” formula the environmental group developed to help assess which species are most vulnerable to overfishing. The method, known as “Framework for Integrated Stock and Habitat Evaluation, is used in other Caribbean countries, Whittle said.

The Environmental Defense Fund has been working with the Cuban government on fishing policy since 2000, Whittle said. The Castro regime “has done a pretty good job” in protecting its environment, Whittle said, but more was needed to protect and revive the nation’s fisheries.

“It’s estimated that over 70 percent of fishing stocks are overfished, and something needed to be done,” Whittle said.

This has impacted not only the environment, but the island nation’s economy.

According to Granma, Cuba’s government-run newspaper, lobster and shrimp exports contribute $63 million to the economy. But, catches have been reduced 65 and 90 percent respectively over the past five years.

Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, said U.S. fisheries are already heavily regulated and based on science, as laid out in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, passed in 1976. He said he’s not seen anything in the announcement that convinces him the new regulations will benefit fish populations here.

He acknowledged that shark and ray protection must be an international effort because they are highly migratory species. But he said the United States has long had strict regulations for shark and ray fishing, and the controversial practice of shark finning, where the fin is kept and the rest of the shark discarded, has been banned since 2000.

“We carry the conservation ethic for the world, and shark and ray fishing are two of the most heavily regulated here in the States and should serve as a model to the rest of the world,” Kelly said.

The one fishery in Cuba and the Caribbean that Kelly said does have a direct impact in South Florida and the Florida Keys is that of the spiny lobster. He said Cuba has had stringent regulations in place for a long time.

Most of the popular crustaceans caught in the Keys are produced in the Caribbean basin, Kelly said, and the larvae makes its way to South Florida via the Yucatan, Loop and Gulf Stream currents.

“Cuba actually has some pretty strict regulations on lobsters,” Kelly said.

The eight-month commercial and recreational spiny lobster season begins Aug. 6. There is also a two-day lobster mini-season on July 24- 25.

During the two-day season, recreational anglers can catch spiny lobsters (12 per person, per day, except in the Keys and within Biscayne National Park, where the limit is six per day, per person) by diving for them or with nets attached to poles, known as bullynets.

David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.