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Common ground, out at sea

Cuba and the US share a marine ecosystem. Can they work together to protect their reefs and sea creatures?


One factor potentially complicating such a partnership is that Cuba is looking to develop deep water petroleum reserves in its portion of the gulf, having signed exploration deals with nearly a dozen foreign oil companies in recent years. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated Cuba’s potential oil deposits at 5 billion barrels — on par with some of the region’s biggest suppliers — while Cuban officials claim up to 20 billion barrels lie beneath the ocean floor.

No offshore drilling operations are currently underway, but if Cuba and its partners do strike oil, it would present a serious new environmental hazard for the region. Prevailing currents would likely push an oil spill into the Florida Keys and up the U.S. eastern seaboard, scientists say, but they recognize Cuba is too pressed for cash to forgo lucrative energy development in favor of strict environmental protection. That’s a reason U.S. scientists say they want to form partnerships now — to advocate for the safest and most sensitive drilling practices.

American scientists also said they’re eager to explore Cuba’s marine ecosystems, which include some of the region’s most extensive and intact coral reefs. Cuba has excellent scientists, U.S. researchers said, but the country has lacked the financial resources to gather much data in recent years.

“Cuba is the least known corner of the Gulf of Mexico,” said Guggenheim, director of the Washington-based advocacy group

“For marine researchers in Flordia, Cuba is a very romantic place,” said Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at MOTE Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. “We’ve often looked south to Cuba from the shores of the Florida Keys and thought ‘why can’t we go there to extend our studies?'"

Hueter said the species he studies travel back and forth between the U.S. and Cuba, and that shark populations in the region have declined 50 to 75 percent since industrial fishing for the animals began 30 years ago. For some species, the decline is more than 90 percent.

That underlines the need for multinational protection, said Hueter. While he recognizes there are political reasons that make closer cooperation difficult, “from a scientific basis, it just doesn’t make sense for us to treat this area of the ocean as if it doesn’t exist.”

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