Protecting Cuba's Abundant Coral Reefs - Sailors for the Sea

Protecting Cuba’s Abundant Coral Reefs

Press Release

The Subject of Sailors for the Sea’s January 2013 Edition to its Ocean Watch Essay Series


Newport, Rhode Island – January 16, 2013 – Sailors for the Sea, the only ocean conservation nonprofit focused on the sailing and boating community, today published Protecting Cuba’s Abundant Coral Reefs.

This month’s Ocean Watch Essay focuses on the efforts of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and their more than 10 years of work with the Cuban environmental and fishery officials, scientists and managers to help protect marine biodiversity in Cuba and the shared waters of the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean. The collaborative efforts helped to establish marine protected areas (MPAs) and co-management systems that will help protect vital coral reef ecosystems for generations to come.

The essay was co-authored and contributed by Dan Whittle, senior attorney at Environmental Defense Fund and director of its Cuba ProgramDoug Rader, PhD EDF’s chief oceans scientist; and Violet Dixon, marketing communications associate for EDF’s Oceans program. In addition to discussing the collaborative efforts of the EDF, this essay also details the diverse marine ecosystem thriving in waters off the Southeast coast of Cuba – a near-pristine coral reef reserve called Jardines de la Reina, or the Gardens of the Queen – and the demand for protection. Of particular note:

  • Healthy coral reefs, mangrove swamps, and seagrass beds support thriving fish populations
  • The abundant and healthy fish populations support local fishing communities and attract ocean enthusiasts
  • Scuba divers come from around the world to witness the myriad of sea animals and breathtaking underwater ecosystems in the Gardens of the Queen
  • EDF divers recorded totals of 124 and 127 fish species in the park during short trips in 2010 and 2011, respectively, without any night diving or specialty habitat diving that would have expanded the numbers dramatically

“Cuban and American scientists have a rich history of working together, despite constraints imposed by the politics and policies of the last five decades,” said Daniel Whittle, director of EDF’s Cuba program. “This collaboration can serve as a foundation for broader environmental dialogue and cooperation between our two countries in the future.”

Importance of US and Cuban Collaboration
As noted in the essay, “Although many of the world’s best-known reefs face destruction in the face of global warming and other threats, large portions of the Gardens of the Queen remain remarkably healthy. Relative isolation from human influence helps make Cuba’s coral reefs unique. Protecting these ecosystems – and species that rely on them – requires careful collaboration. Well-designed MPAs, combined with innovative fisheries management, are the foundation for both sustainable commercial and recreational fisheries and a thriving eco-tourism sector.”

With only the narrow Florida Straits separating Cuba and the United States, both countries understand the importance of collaborating on marine conservation and fisheries management. Cubans realize that the long-term value of maintaining healthy coral reefs is higher than the short-term profits that may come from tourism development, unless tourism and conservation are well balanced.

The Cuban National Center for Protected Areas has set an ambitious target of designating 25 percent of their coastal waters in MPAs. Already 10-15 percent are officially approved as MPAs. Setting aside critical habitat for the many species that live among the coastal waters and coral reefs is the first step. MPAs are an important conservation tool but they are most effective when combined with other fishery management tools – community-based fishery cooperatives or territorial user rights for fishing (TURFs). Together they incentivize fishermen to rebuild and sustain fish stocks. The combination of protected areas and sound fishery management that motivates fishermen to help protect the parks and fish populations is critical.

Most fishermen and local residents around the Gardens of the Queens support tighter restrictions on fishing and understand that the greater investment in science within the park has resulted in improved fisheries management in recent years.


  • Make a donation to EDF’s Cuba Program to support continued scientific and environmental collaboration.
  • Take a virtual 10-day scuba tour through the eyes of our Senior Writer Rod Griffin. 
  • Learn more about why it is critical to conserve Cuba’s biodiversity.
  • Supporting ocean conservation by making a donation to Sailors for the Sea

The essay is available at by clicking here. 

More about the Ocean Watch Essay Program
The Ocean Watch Essay program, a free online resource accessible through the Sailors for the Sea website, provides a constant stream of updated articles on current ocean issues such as ocean acidification, plastics, nonpoint source pollution, and invasive species. Each essay is accompanied by information on how individuals can make a difference in relation to the issue, creating a linkage from knowledge to personal action. Whenever possible, the program also provides information about activities, events, and opportunities, such as lectures, classes, and beach and ocean water clean ups, for people to take action to preserve, protect, and improve the health of the ocean and coastal waters.

About Sailors for the Sea 
Founded in 2004, Sailors for the Sea is a nonprofit organization that educates and empowers the boating community to protect and restore our oceans and local waters. For more information or to participate in any of the Sailors for the Sea programs, or to support the organization, visit