As It Happens

Cuba, U.S. team up to protect sharks in Cuban waters

This week the Cuban government announced a national plan of action to preserve vulnerable sharks in its waters, and they're doing it with the help of the United States.
One hundred of the world's 500 shark species swim in Cuban waters. (Noel Lopez Fernandez)

Cuba has some of the best-preserved marine ecosystems in the Caribbean, but its shark populations are in decline. It's believed that more than 100 of the world's 500 shark species swim in Cuban waters.

This week the Cuban government announced a national plan of action to preserve vulnerable sharks in its waters, and they're doing it with the help of the United States.

The plan is a joint effort between Cuba and the American Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). They're calling for protective zones to preserve critical shark habitats. Dan Whittle is the Senior Director of the EDF's Cuba Program, and as he tells As it Happens host Carol Off that Cuba is an ideal place to launch the program.

"Cuba has done a fantastic job of protecting its marine waters, its coral reef ecosystems, its seagrasses and mangroves, so it's a healthy habitat for sharks," says Whittle.

Many sharks are migratory, which can be a problem for their preservation efforts. It's hoped that the joint Cuban-American effort will change that.

"Scientists have found that those that swim across country borders are the most vulnerable because countries don't usually coordinate management, so even if protection is in place in one country, they may be over-fished in the other, and we're seeing that in the Gulf of Mexico."

Whittle notes that Cuba has had policies in place since the 1990s that cut down on development in coastal areas, which in turn cuts down on pollution in coastal waters.

A Caribbean reef shark behind massive pillar coral off the coast of Cuba. (Ian Shive/The Nature Conservancy)

The first step in the protection plan will be to determine which species of sharks are most vulnerable, and the second will be to manage the catching and killing of sharks in Cuban waters. Whittle says U.S. policy change must be a part of that effort.

"U.S. policy has prevented the two governments from working together for almost six decades. For so long, politics have divided us and it's been perceived that we're divided by the Gulf of Mexico. But scientists say the Gulf of Mexico unites us."

Whittle says as U.S. policies change, more and more scientists will be able to travel to Cuba to conduct further research and together with Cuban officials.

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