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Mote scientists help to craft research plan for Cuba, Gulf

SARASOTA — For the first time in almost 50 years, scientists from nations surrounding the Gulf of Mexico have begun to develop a marine research plan that includes Cuba, according to officials at Mote Marine Laboratory.

Last month, a team of Mote researchers journeyed to the island nation 90 miles off Florida to join Cuban, Mexican and U.S. colleagues at a workshop. The result: They are crafting a written version of a five-year comprehensive plan for marine science and conservation. Within its purview are waters in the Gulf and Caribbean Sea, setting the stage for long-term marine research collaboration, officials said.

“It’s tremendously exciting,” said Robert Hueter, director of Mote’s Center for Shark Research.

“This is a place we as scientists have always wanted to work,” he said. “We knew there were things to study on the Cuban side, and one of the most exciting things about being able to work in Cuba is they have some marine environments unaffected by things like pollution. We can study almost pristine environments and compare them to ours — like reefs; they’re a wonderful lab to study healthy reefs.”

Until the 1960s, the U.S. and Cuba enjoyed a thriving scientific exchange, but since then “it’s been very limited, with hardly any work in the marine sciences,” said Hueter.

Delegates want to study coral reefs, marine mammals, sea turtles, sharks, fish resources and protected areas, building on progress from earlier workshops organized by The Ocean Foundation, the Center for International Policy and the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, according to Hayley Rutger, a spokeswoman for Mote.

Successful conservation depends on knowing where marine species go and what threats they face, she said. However, scientists are only beginning — or preparing, in some cases — to study marine species in Cuban waters, many of which migrate to the United States and Mexico, she said.

Long-term joint studies among Gulf nations have been hindered by a 47-year trade embargo that severely restricts travel between the United States and communist Cuba, Rutger said. However, during the past five years, with legal approval from the U.S. Department of Treasury, Mote scientists have visited Cuba to plan and conduct marine research, she said.

The three-nation work group is now ready to create a five-year blueprint to do much more.

“The workshop was an excellent example of international conservation planning, which is what the Gulf of Mexico has needed for decades,” said Hueter.

Next year, scientists representing the three-nation group plan to re-convene at Mote Marine Laboratory.

According to Rutger, scientists are focusing on:

n Coral reefs, with the emphasis on how well corals in each location rebound from damage caused by pollution, climate change and other factors.

n Marine mammals: Researchers worked on plans to gather health information about dolphins in Cuban and Mexican waters, to better assess risks to dolphin populations.

n Sea turtles: A priority is tracking the travels of three species of sea turtles that migrate throughout the Gulf from their feeding grounds to breeding grounds that may be hundreds of miles away. Using satellite tracking tags, researchers can follow sea turtles in real time as they swim.

n Fish resources: Scientists plan to enhance the management and conservation of coastal fish and invertebrate stocks. They hope to study the management of spiny lobsters, assess how fish populations are affected by human activities besides fishing, such as climate change and pollution, identifying important habitats for fish and expanding aquaculture (fish farming) projects to bolster depleted fish stocks.

n Sharks: University of Havana and Mote scientists have already begun to study which sharks inhabit Cuban waters, and helped to lay the groundwork for additional surveys of sharks near Cuba. A major goal of the group is to formulate a plan for shark fisheries management in cooperation with the three nations’ governments.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031 or at skennedy@bradenton.com.

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