Cuban Coral Reefs and the Great White Threat
By Betty Hernández
At a time when climate change is leaving its mark all over the planet’s coral ecosystems, Cuba’s coral reefs are in inspiringly good shape.
Coral reef bleaching is a phenomenon associated with climate change that has in recent times badly affected Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the reefs of the Gulf of Mexico. According to experts, coral bleaching damaged some 1500km of the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017 equating to two thirds of this World Heritage Site.
A study published recently in science journal Nature paints a gloomy picture, predicting that in less than forty years, some se venty percent of coral reefs in deep ocean areas could be affec ted by corrosion due to ocean acidification. According to the authors, the increasing carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere are causing a series of changes in marine chemistry known as acidification, that involve not only a drop in pH levels but also many other chemical side effects.
One of these changes is the reduction in carbonate ions that are essential to coral life below three thousand metres. The study lamented that even if humanity were to meet the objective set at the Paris summit of not allowing global warming to exceed 2ºC, coral reefs would still be affected.
Los autores lamentaron que incluso, aunque la humanidad logre el objetivo fijado en la Cumbre de París de no superar los dos grados centígrados de calentamiento global, los corales se verán afectados.
Cuba: an isolated archipelago According to Carlos Alberto Díaz, director of the Cuban National Centre for Protected Areas (CNAP), the country’s coral reefs are in good health. He stated that there is very little bleaching, only at specific loca tions that are being monitored.
A scientific expedition undertaken by Cuban and US experts came to the same conclusion and found over one hundred and thirty fish species and two hundred and sixty sponge species inhabiting coastal areas.
A twenty day voyage over May and June 2017 covered 1 430 nau tical miles and allowed teams to observe the distribution of light dependent coral ecosystems at depths between thirty and two hundred metres, and to compare them with other reefs in the Gulf of Mexico and to the south east of the United States and examine the connections between them.
According to the CNAP director the shallow depths of Cuba’s light dependent coral reefs protect them from the worst effects of rising marine temperatures and ocean acidification, which include increased risks of coral bleaching and coral death.
He said the health of Cuba’s coral has a lot to do with good agricultural practices, from organic farming to the controlled and efficient use of fertilizers amongst other national strate gies.
What is put into the earth ends up in the river and flows on into the sea leaving a trail of environmental effects in its wake, he explained.
Díaz confirmed that CNAP will continue to monitor the coral reefs and is developing strategies to strengthen their resistan ce to the threat of climate change and global warming. He also confirmed that Cuba’s two hundred and eleven pro tected areas make up 20.2% of the country’s territory, inclu ding the insular marine platform down to a depth of two hun dred metres.
“We estimate that the National Protected Areas System ad ministers some seventeen percent of country’s surface area and some twenty-five percent of the marine platform,” he stated.
To the rescue Cuba has several innovative schemes in place to protect its co ral reefs under Tarea Vida, the State Plan for confronting climate change.
A study launched in January will investigate the coral reefs of the Jardines de la Reina national park, in order to develop a sustainable plan for coastal ecosystems management and to respond to climate change.
The project’s lead researcher Leslie Hernández told na tional press that the team is focusing on analyzing corals because they are known to be important regulators of the planet’s health, while much less is known about how they respond to meteorological events.
The study will also look at scuba diving sites and evaluate marine habitats and stony coral populations. According to Hernández these investigations will help to improve con servation efforts in Cuba’s southern coastal keys.
Jardines de la Reina is a group of islets on the south coast of the provinces of Ciego de Ávila and Camagüey. It is considered the Caribbean’s greatest marine reserve, home to the biggest coral reef crests in the country. Far from any human habitation and accessible only by sea, its geographical isolation make Jardines de la Reina the most untouched archipelago in the Caribbean.
Meanwhile at the other end of Cuba one of the most ambitious coral rescue and protection projects is underway; a coral nursery located on the Guanahacabibes peninsula at the westernmost end of the island in the province of Pinar del Río.
This project aims to recuperate the Acropora cervicornis coral species, classified “In Critical Danger” by the International Nature Conservation Union. Commonly known as staghorn coral, this species was abundant throughout coastal regions of the Caribbean and was considered one of the principal corals that made up the region’s reefs.
However since the 1980s it has been in decline, affected by diseases as well as pollution, overfishing, scuba diving and the proliferation of invasive species.
With these and other projects in progress Cuba has proved that it hasn’t closed its eyes to the imminent threats of climate change to its underwater ecosystems.
The actions the country takes now will be its guarantee for the future, in a world that shows no signs of committing to reducing CO2 emissions.