A 15-Year History of Collaboration in Cuba

Strong collaboration between Cuban and American scientists and conservation experts is at the core of our programCuba Conservancy, an Ocean Doctor program, is built on 15 years of work of Ocean Doctor president, Dr. David E. Guggenheim who directs the program. At the core of Cuba Conservancy’s mission is to establish sustained collaboration between Cuba and the U.S. to:

  • ensure enduring, locally-supported marine research and conservation programs in Cuba.
  • contribute to major advances in the scientific understanding of Cuba’s natural resources.
  • achieve meaningful, long-lasting conservation for Cuba’s marine ecosystems and shared ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.
  • develop long-term policies and solutions to environmental challenges in Cuba that support both the natural environment and local communities.
  • advance collaboration between U.S. and Cuban governmental agencies in marine science and conservation
  • forge long-term collaborative relationships with our Cuban colleagues.
  • help train the next generation of Cuban marine scientists.
  • foster a meaningful dialogue between Cubans and Americans through people-to-people education programs focused on marine conservation.
Training the Next Generation of Marine Scientists: Our joint research is serving as the basis of Master's and Doctoral research for dozens of students at University of Havana's Center for Marine Research, the only institution in Cuba where marine scientists are accredited

Training the Next Generation of Marine Scientists: Our joint research is serving as the basis of Master’s and Doctoral research for dozens of students at University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research, the only institution in Cuba where marine scientists are accredited

The Program builds upon a strong foundation of scientific research, which has served to advance science and conservation policy while forging strong, long-term collaborative relationships. Our work in Cuba has resulted in enduring partnerships, publication of dozens of papers in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, meaningful advances in scientific understanding of Cuban marine ecosystems and advancement of the careers of Cuban scientists and other professionals. Dr. Guggenheim led the development of the Trinational Initiative for Research and Conservation in the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean which has succeeded in fostering enhanced collaboration among Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. Our work has gained national attention, through 60 MINUTES, NPR, the New York Times, and PBS and has helped engender a different, more positive perspective of Cuban-American relations to the public.

Collaborative Research in the Waters We Share

Green Sea Turtle

Protecting many species of sea life, including endangered sea turtles, means working across borders as these species regularly cross the borders of many countries, including Cuba and the United States. (Photo: Noel López)

For 15 years we have worked closely with our Cuban colleagues on a range of research projects focused on the shared waters between Cuba and the United States. Our work has led to the publication of dozens of peer-reviewed scientific papers and has helped advance conservation efforts in Cuba. Our work has helped train the next generation of Cuban scientists, supporting the Master’s and Doctoral theses of dozens of students at the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research/Centro de Investigaciones Marinas (CIM), the only institution in Cuba where marine scientists are accredited.

60 Minutes - CBSOur work in Cuba’s “Gardens of the Queen” was featured on an award-winning segment of the CBS news program, 60 Minutes hosted by Anderson Cooper.

Our Projects in Cuba

Protecting Cuba’s Ecosystems After the Embargo

Advancing the Sustainability of Cuba’s Coastal Ecosystems

The past 50 years have seen unprecedented degradation to the environment, especially in the Caribbean. A major report released in 2014 from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) documents an average decline of coral cover in the Caribbean of more than 50 percent since 1970 and concludes that without swift and meaningful action, “Caribbean coral reefs and their associated resources will virtually disappear within just a few decades…

Meanwhile, Cuba’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems have remained remarkably healthy and intact, especially Cuba’s coral reefs, among the most pristine and healthy marine ecosystems remaining in the Caribbean. The health of Cuba’s natural environment is due both to the fact that Cuba has developed so differently from the rest of the Caribbean as well as a strong set of environmental laws and a robust network of protected areas.

Flags of Cuba, USAWhat happens to Cuba’s environmental achievements in a post-embargo world? Given the uncertainty in Cuba’s future – including a burgeoning privatization movement and the possibility of an end to the U.S. embargo and influx of tourism and business – it is important to anticipate dramatically increasing pressures on Cuba’s natural resources.

Ocean Doctor, through its Cuba Conservancy program, is working to help “future-proof” Cuba’s environmental achievements to ensure enduring protections for its natural ecosystems. Integral to this effort is engaging and supporting local communities. Our work contains four major components:

  1. Using Environmental Economics to Value Cuba’s Natural Ecosystems
  2. Working with Cuban Communities to Develop Sustainable Alternatives
  3. Engaging Cuban Communities on Environmental Issues through Film
  4. The Cuba-U.S. Sustainability Partnership (CUSP)

Using Environmental Economics to Value Cuba’s Natural Ecosystems

During the 1960s it became clear that traditional economics failed to take into account important factors, such as social welfare and the environment. Environmental economics seeks to measure the environmental impacts or costs of economic decisions, helping to address the shortfalls of policies based on traditional economics which often treat environmental impacts as externalities without economic consequence.

Cuba has developed differently from any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean. Consequently, many of its ecosystems – both terrestrial and marine – remain intact and exceptionally healthy and vibrant. Cuba has strong environmental laws in place and a comprehensive national system of protected areas. Its national commitment to protect 25 percent of its marine waters in protected areas is world-leading.

Robust economic valuation of Cuba’s natural resources, in combination with strong community engagement, will be essential to ensure the long-term protection of Cuba’s ecosystems and the “future-proofing” of its environmental laws.

Participants of the first international environmental economics workshop in Cuba, September 2014

Participants of the first international environmental economics workshop in Cuba, September 2014

Ocean Doctor led Cuba’s first international environmental economics workshop in September 2014 with representatives of Cuba’s Ministry for Science, Technology and the Environment/Ministerio de Ciencias, Tecnología y Medio Ambiente (CITMA) and the Cuban National Center for Protected Areas/Centro Nacional de Areas Protegídas (CNAP), along with U.S. partners including University of California, Santa Barbara, University of Colorado, Boulder, World Resources Institute and Washington Lee University to develop and implement a national strategy for the application of environmental economics to marine and coastal areas. The results of this project will provide Cuban economists with the state-of-the-art methods of economic valuation tools they need to support sound decisionmaking and fulfill their obligations under Cuban law.

Over the coming months, our team will develop and finalize bio-economic models for a proposed expansion of the protected area within Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen National Park.

Environmental Economics

Ocean Doctor and the Cuban Center for Coastal Ecosystem Research are leading a series of workshops focused on environmental economics

The success of the workshop is leading to a long-term effort to apply the methodologies developed for Gardens of the Queen to protected areas across Cuba and to train Cuban specialists in all Cuban provinces to use environmental economics tools. This has set the stage for long-term collaboration including:

  • a series of ongoing workshops focused on other geographical areas
  • development of a state-of-the-art economics valuation toolkit supporting a national strategy for the application of environmental economics
  • application of economic tools in ongoing economic valuation of Cuba’s marine and coastal areas
  • analysis and application of economic valuation results to decision-making in Cuba
  • publication of results

Working with Cuban Communities to Develop Sustainable Alternatives

Without strong local support, economic pressures from local communities could push the government toward unsustainable development/tourism alternatives. Hand-in-hand with our environmental economics work is the development of alternatives for Cuban communities that are both environmentally and economically sustainable.

Project Red AlertaWe are pleased to announce Project “Red Alerta,” a unique partnership of Ocean Doctor’s Cuba Conservancy Program and the community of Cocodrilo, a small community on the southern shore of Cuba’s Isle of Youth. Through this project, a coral reef ecosystem monitoring network and education program will be established in the community. Participants will be taught about environmental issues and protection, coral reef ecosystems, their importance and threats, and trained in monitoring methodologies. They will be provided with and trained in the use of snorkeling gear, coral reef identification and health assessment, and how to collect and prepare data for sharing with the scientific community and the public.

Cocodrilo has high unemployment and few opportunities. The majority of the jobs in the community remain fishing-related. Project “Red Alerta” can help broaden the community’s opportunities for income. As the community gains familiarity with its coral reef ecosystems and identification of corals and fish, they will be gaining key skills that can be used to educate tourists, allowing the community to develop a strong, sustainable ecotourism operation. Cocodrilo residents are eager to benefit from tourism and the first bed and breakfast (casa particular) was just approved in the community in December 2015.

cocodrilo map

Location of the community of Cocodrilo on Cuba’s Isle of Youth

Over time, the program will help support economic independence for the community and provide strong incentives to protect the adjacent Punta Frances Marine Protected Area (PFMPA). In addition, the program will have important educational linkages to young students in school programs and help foster a growing environmental awareness throughout the community.

The project name, “Red Alerta,” takes advantage of two different meanings of the word “red” in Spanish and English. “Red Alerta” translates as “Alert Network” from Spanish (where “red” means “network”), while in English, “Red Alerta” is close to the term “red alert,” conveying great urgency, appropriate to the dire situation facing Caribbean coral reefs.

Despite its designation as a protected area, fishing continues illegally within the PFMPA limits, both by commercial fishing cooperatives and by individuals. Unfortunately, the net impact of continued fishing may be threatening the health of the coral reef ecosystem. In August 2015, a scientific workshop led by Ocean Doctor, including Cuban and U.S. scientists, observed a striking lack of large fish (including grouper, snapper and sharks) and some coral reefs experience an overgrowth by macroalgae, a possible symptom of overfishing. Understanding and managing the problem is compounded by a lack of ongoing coral reef monitoring, due to a lack of resources. Project “Red Alerta” can benefit the marine park by providing ongoing monitoring and economic incentives to protect it.

Ultimately, Cocodrilo could serve as a model for other Cuban coastal communities seeking a future that is both environmentally and economically sustainable.

Ocean Doctor Cuba Coastal Communities 20160510
Ocean Doctor Cuba Coastal Communities 20160510
Version: Cuba Coastal Communities - Red Alerta
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Recent Articles/Media Coverage

What Becomes of Cuba After the Embargo Is Lifted?

Cuba’s Environment After the Embargo

Conserving Cuba’s Coral Reefs

Engaging Cuban Communities on Environmental Issues through Film

Cuba Environmental Film Festival CUEFF EN-ES_w500

In partnership with the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), Mundo Latino and other Cuban organizations,  Ocean Doctor is launching Cuba’s first environmental film festival October 24-31, 2016.

The festival will present environmental films from Cuba and around the world focusing on a range of issues, such as deforestation, climate change, pollution, coral reefs, species extinction, sustainable development and green economies.

The Festival will include panel discussions, forums, workshops and community activities that will feature foreign national and international filmmakers, scientists and world leaders in conservation alongside Cuban experts.

Cuban filmmakers are encouraged to participate in submitting films that address Cuban environmental and sustainable development issues (see below).

The long-term goal is to bring a selection of the main film festival to different cities of Cuba especially to educational institutions and community organizations, and make it an annual event in both the city of Havana and other cities throughout Cuba.

Cuba’s Healthy Coral Reefs and their Potential Role in Guiding the Restoration of Reefs Throughout the Caribbean

Carysfort Reef 1975 to 2014

A dramatic time series of photos documenting the 95 percent loss of coral cover from Carysfort Reef, Key Largo, Florida since 1975. The photos capture the loss of a once thriving colony of elkhorn coral, Acropora palmata (Photos: Phil Dustan)

A major report (mentioned above) released in 2014 from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) documents an average decline of coral cover in the Caribbean of more than 50 percent since 1970. The report is the most comprehensive of its kind to date, compiling a record 35,000 quantitative reef surveys from 1969 to 2012 across 90 locations in 34 countries. Among the report’s conclusions is the admonition that without swift and meaningful action, “Caribbean coral reefs and their associated resources will virtually disappear within just a few decades…

The notable health of Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen ecosystem –among the most pristine and healthy marine ecosystems in the Caribbean – provides an unique opportunity to serve as a living laboratory to better quantify and understand the factors responsible for ensuring the long-term health of coral reef ecosystems. Because human impacts have been so pervasive throughout the Caribbean, there exist few undisturbed “control groups” against which to compare disturbed ecosystems, and there may well be no other relatively undisturbed coral reef ecosystem with the size and integrity of Gardens of the Queen remaining in the Caribbean. Gardens of the Queen is the largest no-take marine reserve in the Caribbean and has been protected since 1996.

In collaboration with the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research/Centro de Investigaciones Marinas (CIM), the Cuban Center for Coastal Ecosystem Research/ Centro de Investigaciones de Ecosistemas Costeros (CIEC) and the National Aquarium of Cuba/Acuario Nacional de Cuba, along with other Cuban and U.S. institutions, Ocean Doctor is planning 2015 workshop focused on the health of Cuba’s coral reef ecosystems to advance understanding of how healthy coral reef ecosystems function and the factors responsible for maintaining their health. This will, in turn, help advance basic science and serve as an essential guide for restoring ecosystem processes of many degraded coral reefs around the Caribbean.

Healthy Stand of Elkhorn Coral in Cuba's Gardens of the Queen

A healthy stand of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) in Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen. Elkhorn coral is now 95 percent extinct from the Caribbean and is listed on the U.S. Endangered Species List, but in Cuba it thrives. (Photo: David E. Guggenheim)

Although many of the factors responsible for Cuba’s coral reef ecosystems’ health are intuitive (e.g., lack of pollution, no fishing, distant from mainland and/or inaccessible, etc.), and CIM and CIEC have developed a program to examine these factors, it is necessary to expand this program and improve its scientific methodologies in order to better measure and quantify these factors. Such a program could provide new insights into the structure and dynamics of Cuba’s healthy coral reef ecosystems and provide scientists with guidelines to develop successful management and restoration plans that could be applied to other areas in Cuba and the Caribbean. For example, the role of top predators in maintaining community structure is believed to be critically important in ensuring that coral reefs thrive.[1] An abundance of sharks, groupers and other top predators is one of the Park’s most striking attributes. Further, such insights are seen as invaluable in serving as a blueprint to guide coral reef management practices and restoration efforts throughout the Caribbean.

The workshop will also explore the concept of ecosystem resilience, the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a perturbation or disturbance through its resistance to damage and/or its ability to recover quickly. It is generally accepted that healthy ecosystems are more resilient. It has therefore been hypothesized that a number of Cuba’s coral reef ecosystems are more resilient to global disturbances, such as climate change and ocean acidification, because of their health and lack of local disturbances.

The three major goals this scientific effort aims to achieve are to:

  1. Assess ecological indicators that distinguish Cuba’s healthy coral reef ecosystems from other areas to better quantify and understand its outstanding ecosystem health and resilience. These ecological processes will be studied through indicators examine key species groups and population levels
  2. Identify the management implications behind Gardens of the Queen’s health. Design science to measure factors responsible for this ecosystem’s health and resilience.
  3. Develop a “blue print” to guide restoration efforts elsewhere in Caribbean based on results observed in Gardens of the Queen.

When completed, the project will develop important management insights and recommendations, promote international collaboration to use selected areas in Cuba as a living laboratory or baseline to study coral reef resilience in other places of the Caribbean or the world, and draw from the results to to inform conservation policies and resource managers around the Caribbean.

Recent Articles/Media Coverage

OMG, I Thought You Were Dead!

Conserving Cuba’s Coral Reefs

The Gardens of the Queen

[1] Dulvy NK, Freckleton RP, Polunin NVC (2004). Coral Reef Cascades and the Indirect Effects of Predator Removal by Exploitation. Ecology Letters. 7: 410-416

Cuba-U.S. Sustainability Partnership (CUSP)

Cuba-U.S. Sustainability Partnership (CUSP)

In partnership with the Center for International Policy and Robert Muse and Associates, Ocean Doctor has launched the Cuba-U.S. Sustainability Partnership (CUSP), to help ensure a sustainable future for Cuba in a post-embargo world.

The long-awaited historic December 17, 2014 announcements by Presidents Obama and Castro to normalize diplomatic relations heralds a new era of Cuba-U.S. relations. However, there are growing concerns about what normalized relations and an end to the economic embargo might mean for Cuba’s environment and culture.

“Ironically, the U.S. may become a greater threat to Cuba as its friend than it ever was as its enemy, as a flood of tourism and business development from the U.S. could undermine Cuba’s natural heritage and cultural identity,” states Ocean Doctor president Dr. David E. Guggenheim who has led research and conservation projects in Cuba for 15 years. Such a legacy has befallen many islands in the Caribbean over the past 50 years. A 2014 study states that half of the Caribbean’s coral cover has been lost since 1970 due primarily to human impacts.

Recognizing this unique moment in history as an opportunity to engage stakeholders, including private sector investors, corporations and NGOs, CUSP comprises entities that recognize that it is in their best business interests to contribute to creating a sustainable future for Cuba. CUSP members will commit to a set of agreed-upon guidelines for sustainable development that ensures the protection of Cuba´s environment, culture and communities.

Among its activities, CUSP will:

  1. Provide a rich source of expertise to educate the U.S. private sector about Cuba and its unique environmental, social and cultural heritage, needs and vulnerabilities.
  2. Develop and commit to a set of ethics, guiding principles and best practices for sustainable development in Cuba.
  3. Facilitate constructive engagement and information exchange between CUSP members and the Cuban community.
  4. Facilitate the collaborative development of innovative solutions and initiatives focused on balancing economic development and environmental and cultural conservation.
  5. Serve as a credible body to educate the public and inform conservation policy initiatives with governmental agencies in both the U.S. and Cuba.

CUSP’s initial focus is on the tourism industry, with emphasis on responsible, sustainable tourism and the use of environmental economics to assess sustainable alternatives to traditional Caribbean tourism development, e.g., ecotourism.

CUSP is also focused on the growing number of Cuban entrepreneurs as Cuba’s small-scale privatization continues to grow. In collaboration with their U.S. counterparts, CUSP members can exchange information on a broad range of sustainable business practices.

Environmental Diplomacy

Cuban scientists meet with Congress, State Department

Cuban scientists meet with Congress, State Department in 2014. (Photo: D. Guggenheim)

For years during a period without normalized diplomatic relations, marine scientists quietly succeeded where politicians and diplomats fell short in bringing two estranged countries, Cuba and the U.S., closer together. Marine science and conservation was cited as a rare example of fruitful collaboration between the two countries and became an important vehicle to advance relations between the two countries. Now, with the normalization of diplomatic relations underway, our respective governments are building on this foundation of collaboration as environmental diplomacy evolves into a true government-to-government dialogue. Ocean Doctor continues its efforts to advance and support government-to-government collaboration in marine science and conservation between the U.S. and Cuba.

Science AAASRead the Science Insider article about this project: U.S. and Cuba Take Tentative Steps Toward Greater Marine Science Collaboration

Finding Solutions for Invasive Lionfish


A 2013 distribution map (courtesy of USGS) shows widespread invasion of the red lionfish (Pterois volitans) in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.


Lionfish (Pterois volitans). Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific, have long been known for their graceful beauty and their long, venemous spines. Over the past 2-3 decades, lionfish suddenly began appearing in the Atlantic off South Florida and have since been spreading in alarming numbers through the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. How the lionfish ended up as an invader to these waters remains unclear, but the consequences are alarming. They are voracious feeders, growing up to 47 cm in length and able to consume prey up to half their size. Scientists have documented that lionfish are decimating native reef fish populations; at least 40 species of fish in the Atlantic have seen population declines since the lionfish appeared. The problem has continued to worsen as lionfish have no natural predators in Atlantic waters and a single female can lay up to 2 million eggs per year. Despite efforts to control lionfish, such as through diver culling and developing a fishery for the species (they are edible), the populations continue to rise.


A scientist at Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen “training” sharks to eat lionfish in December 2013 (Photo: D. Guggenheim)

In collaboration with several Cuban institutions, including CIEC and CIM, Ocean Doctor is leading a 2014 workshop focused on an integrated approach to managing lionfish populations in Gardens of the Queen National Park. Many scientists believe that the long-term solution to the problem depends upon ensuring that the ecosystem be able to take care of itself. A healthy ecosystem, like Gardens of the Queen, may be in the best position to do so, especially given its healthy population of predators (sharks, groupers, etc). Scientists are now gathering data on predation of lionfish by resident predators and assessing the feasibility of “training” sharks, groupers and other predators to eat the unfamiliar fish. Early results indicate some success. Sharks in the Gardens of the Queen have been observed taking live, healthy lionfish without human intervention, and lionfish spines have been found in the stomach contents of groupers.

Renewable Energy

Renewable Energy

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This 5kW buoy generates clean energy using waves as small as 10 cm and may represent an important renewable energy source for coastal communities in Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean (Photo courtesy Resen Energy)

At a time when shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources has become more important than ever, nearly half a billion people living in coastal areas around the world remain dependent upon electricity generated from diesel generators. Diesel technology is both one of the least-efficient and most expensive forms of electrical generation technology.

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Electricity generation from wave energy using small buoys is sustainable, scalable and complements other renewable energy technologies. (Photo courtesy Resen Energy)

The situation in the Caribbean is especially serious as Caribbean nations depend almost exclusively on imported petroleum for electricity generation. Renewable energy sources provide less than 3 percent of commercial energy in the Caribbean and electricity rates are among the highest in the world, vulnerable to world price fluctuations and shortages. The island nations of the Caribbean are also among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise and increasing frequency and severity of hurricanes. Nations in the Caribbean, therefore, have another compelling reason to find alternatives to fossil fuels which are contributing to climate change.

In partnership with the Danish-American Business Council, Resen Energy (Denmark), CNAP and others, Ocean Doctor is leading a 2014 workshop to develop renewable energy sources for one or more of Cuba’s small, remote coastal communities, to serve as a pilot for renewable energy from small, electricity-generating buoys. Small lever-operated pivoting-float (LOPF) buoys generate electricity using wave energy and present an opportunity to provide coastal communities with reliable, clean energy without the need for large-scale deployment, major transmission infrastructure or prohibitive capital investment. The technology is scalable, flexible and complementary to other renewable energy technologies, such as wind and solar.

Discover-MagazineRead the Discover Magazine article about this project: Cuba Harvests Clean Energy from the Sea

PBS NatureOur research in Cuba’s Gulf of Mexico waters was featured on the PBS “Nature” series.

Cuba Conservancy - an Ocean Doctor Program

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