TAMPA — The Florida Aquarium in Tampa has made history by entering into a partnership with the National Aquarium in Havana, the first time aquariums from the two nations have ever done so.
The Florida Aquarium signed a memorandum of understanding a few weeks ago and a copy with a signature from the National Aquarium was delivered to Tampa on Monday morning.
The Florida Aquarium made the announcement Tuesday.
The partnership will initially focus on coral reefs.
Tampa’s Florida Aquarium is a leader in researching ways to restore the reefs, which are dying the world over.
Havana’s National Aquarium has access to the most pristine coral reefs in the world.
“Although Cuba’s reefs are only 90 miles away from Key West, they are in much better condition than our local reefs systems,” Thom Stork, president and CEO of The Florida Aquarium, said in a prepared statement.
Katherine Claytor, a Florida Aquarium spokeswoman, told the Tribune, “Our goal is to figure out why they are in good health and how we can use that information in our current work.”
In return, the National Aquarium will learn how the Florida Aquarium is growing coral in a controlled setting in case Cuba’s reefs one day meet the same dark fate as those off the shores of the Sunshine State.
“This is an important step forward, one that should have happened a long time ago,” said Dan Whittle, who directs the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund’s 15-year-old marine and coastal conservation work in Cuba.
“For over 50 years, Cuba and the U.S. managed marine life and habitats separately when it should have been done together. We know where each nation’s boundaries lie but marine life does not. It is all one habitat.”
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The aquariums will meet for the first time as official partners this fall when representatives from the Tampa marine center travel to Cuba to take part in two conferences there.
The first is the Tri-national Initiative for Marine Research & Conservation in the Gulf of Mexico & Western Caribbean — meetings among researchers from the U.S., Cuba and Mexico on issues affecting turtles, sharks, dolphins, fisheries, coral reefs and protected marine areas. That takes place Nov. 13 and 14.
Next, from Nov. 16-20, is the International Marine and Coastal Science Conference that focuses on similar issues but is open to scientists and researchers from all nations.
Florida Aquarium representatives will be taken on a dive for their first glimpse of Cuba’s coral reefs.
By summer 2016, the Florida Aquarium will send another team to Cuba to concentrate solely on researching the reefs.
The deal was reached with the help of Albert A. Fox, founder of the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba.
“This is a classic example of what can be accomplished when both parties work with each other from a position of respect,” said Fox.
This is the second time Fox has helped arrange environmental collaborations between Cuba and the U.S.
In 2010, he introduced U.S. oil and environmental leaders from the private sector to members of the Cuban government. This led to successful lobbying of the U.S. government to work with Cuba on a cleanup and containment protocol.
“Tampa should be commended for again leading the way as it often does with much of what has to do with Cuba,” said Whittle with the Environmental Defense Fund.
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Elected and private leaders from Tampa have been aggressive in re-establishing connections to Cuba before and after the U.S. changed its policy toward the island nation from isolation to normalization.
Since normalization began, Tampa City Council, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, have pushed for the first Cuban consulate to be located in Tampa.
Castor, the first member of Congress from Florida to call for changing U.S. policy, also recently filed a bill to lift the Cuban embargo.
Tampa has also has links to Cuba through charter flights, the arts, diplomacy baseball, and historically, through support for the Cuban War of Independence from Spain and the cigar industry.
The aquarium partnership predates the U.S. government’s new Cuba policies, announced in December by President Barack Obama. Representatives from the Florida Aquarium initially visited Cuba in October.
Still, this deal is about more than politics and normalization efforts. Its primary focus is the environment.
Scientists predict that by 2050, all the world’s coral reefs will be threatened by pollution and changes in water temperature.
Coral reefs protect coasts by reducing wave energy from storms and hurricanes. And as home to more than 4,000 species of fish and countless species of plants, some support up to 25 percent of all known marine life.
“Regardless of how it has happened the threat is real,” said Ashley Hill, volunteer and education coordinator at the Key Largo-based Coral Restoration Foundation. “Just the photographic evidence of how things have changed in the keys in the last 50 years is heartbreaking.”
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Yet little has changed in Cuba’s reefs, especially the “Gardens of the Queen,” located in southern waters off the provinces of Camaguey and Ciego de Avila.
Marine scientists consider diving there akin to travelling back in time to see what reefs originally looked like.
Why these reefs have suffered no damage could provide the key to saving reefs everywhere.
An obvious reason could be the lack of pollution the island nation has running into its marine ecosystems, said Margo McKnight, vice president of biological resources at the Florida Aquarium.
“From a science standpoint we want to really know what it is and that will take a study,” McKnight said. “There could be other reasons.”
For example, McKnight said, Florida’s long-spined sea urchin population was severely depleted in the 1980s by a bacterial infection. Sea urchin clean excess algae from the coral. And this excess algae can prevent coral from getting sunlight it needs.
Whether or not Cuba still has a high population of these sea urchins is one of many questions McKnight hopes to answer through this partnership.
“So it may take more than bringing the coral back,” McKnight said. “We may also have to find a way to bring back the long-spined sea urchin.”
McKnight spoke to the Tribune from the Florida Keys, where she is studying the coral’s annual spawning period.
Every August coral release sperm and eggs into the water.
Sperm and eggs from the same reef cannot procreate, McKnight said. And because the reefs off Florida’s shores are so decimated and spread apart, not enough of them can travel far enough to meet.
The Coral Restoration Foundation, with one of the largest offshore coral nurseries in the world, is where the Florida Aquarium collects sperm and eggs each August to bring back for study on the coral reproductive process.
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Last year, the Florida Aquarium became the first research center in the world to grow coral in an offshore lab that survived the beginning stages of life. In a few years, this coral can be replanted on a reef.
“Cuba is not even looking at this right now because their corals have enough critical mass,” McKnight said. “They are now interested in learning about this so they can protect themselves if necessary one day.”
Whatever lessons the Florida Aquarium learns from Cuba’s reefs will be used when it begins replanting coral some day.
This may be the first formal partnership between aquariums from the two nations, but environmental collaborations have been underway for years between non-governmental agencies and Cuba’s government and private institutions.
Those include Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Ocean Doctor, which has studied Cuba’s coral reefs; New York Botanical Garden and Cuban biologists who are identifying and assessing Cuba’s most vulnerable plant species; Sarasota’s Sea to Shore Alliance and the University of Havana on endangered manatees; and New York City’s Wildlife Conservation Society and Cuban park officials on wetlands and endangered species.
Then there is Whittle’s Environmental Defense Fund. Currently, it is primarily focusing on Cuba’s shark population but in February it teamed with Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and Cuba’s Center for Marine Research and the Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research.
Together they successfully took healthy coral from the Gardens of the Queen and replanted it elsewhere in the park.
This, said Whittle, was a onetime experiment between scientists rather than a long-term collaboration and did not include an aquarium from Cuba.
“It is exciting that there is now a formal partnership between Cuba and Tampa that will be ongoing,” Whittle said. “The information this collaboration generates could impact the world.”
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Scientists from Mote Marine and the National Aquarium have worked together on research projects but never under an official partnership that included a signed memorandum, as Florida Aquarium now has.
“Mote scientists have built relationships with the National Aquarium of Cuba and a diversity of marine researchers in other Cuban institutions,” said Michael Crosby, Mote’s president and CEO. “Mote welcomes the expansion of U.S. marine science, education and outreach partnerships with our counterparts in Cuba, for the mutual benefit of both nations.”
That Tampa was the first aquarium to enter into a partnership says a lot about the quality of its work, Whittle said.
Cuba is very selective with whom it partners on scientific research.
“I think it speaks very highly about how serious we are about conservation,” said Claytor, the Florida Aquarium spokeswoman. “Being an exhibit-based aquarium is a big part of who we are but so is our conservation work, specifically with coral. This is a wonderful opportunity to keep the coral safe.”