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Cuba’s new shark conservation could help Florida sealife
William E. GibsonContact Reporter
Washington Bureau

Cuba will restrict shark fishing for the first time.

— Sharks, the depleted top predator of the seas, will have a better
chance to survive and rebound in Florida waters because of a new
partnership between Cuba and marine scientists in the United States.

Their goal is to monitor and preserve vulnerable shark populations,
especially those that migrate from Cuba to Florida, the Gulf of Mexico
and along the Atlantic coast.

Cuban officials recently decided to restrict shark fishing and to
conserve their habitat in the island’s pristine waters as part of an
action plan developed in collaboration with American scientists. They
signed a groundbreaking agreement with the Environmental Defense Fund, a
private American group that has been advising them for years despite
animosity between the two countries.

Marine scientists in both countries predict that a coordinated
management plan will revive some varieties of shark and other vulnerable
species that have been over-fished and harmed by pollution along
Florida’s congested coastline.

“If we effectively implement those actions down in Cuba, we will
probably see an improvement in Florida,” said Jorge Angulo-Valdés, a
Cuban scientist at the of Havana and a visiting faculty
member at the University of Florida. “Some species will recover in five
years.”

The breakthrough was made possible by closer relations between the U.S.
and Cuban governments and a new agreement to protect the marine
environment straddling the Florida Straits.

Many sharks and other fish found in Florida were born and grew up in
Cuba before traveling along ocean currents for hundreds or thousands of
miles.

A team of Cuban and American scientists in February placed a satellite
tag on a longfin mako shark off the coast of Havana. By mid-July, it had
covered 5,500 miles and swam as far north as New Jersey.

“These animals don’t respect any kind of political boundaries. They are
highly migratory fish, and many of the marine resources in Florida are
shared with Cuba,” said Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark
Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. “So conservation in
Cuba will help conservation here as well.”

Environmental Defense Fund
The shark habitat remains healthy in Cuba largely because its coast is
undeveloped and remains mostly unspoiled from pollution. But some
species have been over-fished by impoverished Cubans.

“People have to have to eat, and they are looking for options,”
Angulo-Valdés said. “We can’t just start prohibiting things. We have to
convince people that they would be better off by leaving those sharks
alive.”

Sharks developed 400 million years ago as a top predator among sea
creatures, but they are falling prey to humans. Studies indicate that
shark populations have declined by 50 to 90 percent since the 1970s.

“They are adapted to be king of the hill,” Hueter said. “They are not
best adapted to be preyed upon, and that’s the role we play as fishers
of sharks. All of them are vulnerable to some extent, some more than
others.”

He and other American scientists have been quietly consulting with
Cubans for years, but attempts to coordinate research and management of
sealife have been frustrated by animosity between the United States and
Cuba and by the U.S. trade . Some scientists at Florida
universities have been blocked by a state law that prohibits state
employees from traveling to Cuba.

President Barack Obama’s outreach to Cuba and the restoration of
diplomatic relations this year allowed closer scientific cooperation and
paved the way for Cuba’s pact with the Environmental Defense Fund.

“The most vulnerable shark populations are those that cut across
national boundaries, precisely because of a lack of coordination,” said
Dan Whittle, director of EDF’s Cuba program.

Scientists from both countries are intent on preserving Cuba’s
environment before its coastline is overwhelmed by development. They
hope to foster an environment-friendly that brings snorkelers,
scuba divers and nature lovers to the island.

“That is our best shot in the future,” said Angulo-Valdés, the Cuban
scientist. “The Caribbean is full of sun and sand beaches, right? If we
want to make a difference, if we want to exploit natural resources in a
way that does not destroy them, eco-tourism and specialized tourism is
the way to go.”

Wegibson@Tribpub.com, 202-824-8256

Source: Cuba’s shark conservation could help Florida sealife – Sun
Sentinel –
www.sun-sentinel.com/news/nationworld/fl-sharks-cuba-florida-20151101-story.html

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