Ocean Doctor’s Cuba Conservancy Program

Cuba Conservancy - an Ocean Doctor Program


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Environmental sustainability — including adaptation to climate change — is at the forefront of policy priorities in Cuba today. Marine conservation issues, including the quality of life for residents of coastal communities, are especially important among these priorities. Because the U.S. and Cuba are neighbors and are strongly connected biologically by the waters they share, collaboration on marine research and conservation issues is essential. Fortunately, such collaboration has avoided the divisive politics between the two countries and stands as one of few positive examples of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Strong collaboration between Cuban and American scientists and conservation experts is at the core of our program

Photo: Abel Valdivia

Our Cuba Conservancy Program engages Cuban scientists and institutions toward developing innovative solutions for marine conservation and coastal community sustainability challenges. Our work continues a 13- year foundation of collaborative scientific research, which has helped to train Cuba’s next generation of scientists. The scope and reach of our work is increasing significantly as we are now focused on the socioeconomic dimension of environmental issues, including developing economic tools to value Cuba’s marine resources; developing sustainable, renewable energy sources for coastal communities; developing a sustainable aquaculture industry in response to overfishing and climate change; promoting educational & cultural exchanges, including our people-to-people education exchanges initiated in 2013; and “environmental diplomacy, ” leading a new government-to- government dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba, focused on elevating collaboration in marine science and conservation.

At the core of Ocean Doctor’s Cuba Conservancy Program’s mission is to establish sustained collaboration between Cuba and the United States 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.
  • forge long-term collaborative relationships with our Cuban colleagues.
  • help train the next generation of Cuban marine scientists.

The Program builds upon a strong foundation of scientific research. Research not only serves the purpose of advancing science and informing conservation policy efforts, but also helps forge strong, long-term collaborative relationships and credibility, facilitating efforts in the policy arena.

Support Ocean Doctor’s Cuba Conservancy Program
Ocean Doctor is a program of The Baum Foundation. Your donation is secure and tax-deductible in the U.S.


Collaborative Scientific Research

Since 2000, our collaborative work with Cuban scientists has helped train Cuba’s next generation of marine scientists, entering their careers considering their colleagues to the north as important and trusted research partners. Our collaborative research efforts are helping advance Cuban scientific research efforts and the careers of Cuban scientists as well as “science diplomacy” between Cuba and the U.S. Our research is focused on two extraordinary areas: Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen (Jardines de la Reina) and Cuba’s Gulf of Mexico waters along its northwestern coast.

Gardens of the Queen

Coral reefs are healthy and abundant in Cuba, like this Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) which has declined by 95% in the Caribbean (Photo: David E. Guggenheim)

Coral reefs are healthy and abundant in Cuba, like this Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) which has declined by 95% elsewhere in the Caribbean (Photo: David E. Guggenheim)

Gardens of the Queen National Park (Jardines de la Reina), the country’s first marine park and the largest fully-protected marine reserve in the Caribbean. It may also be the healthiest marine ecosystem in the Caribbean, our closest glimpse at the pristine reefs and islands Columbus saw and named for Spain’s Queen Isabella 500 years ago. Ocean Doctor is working with the Cuban Center for the Study of Coastal Ecosystems (Centro de Investigaciones de Ecosistemas Costeros, CIEC) and the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (Centro de Investigaciones Marinas, CIM) to study this unique ecosystem and its surrounding “life support systems,” such as the virtually unexplored Gulf of Ana María, in order to better understand why these marine ecosystems have been able to thrive in a world of corals that are dead and dying. Gardens of the Queen is a unique “living laboratory,” providing a rare setting to study one of the few healthy coral reef ecosystems left in the Caribbean. Its study may provide valuable insights that can guide the protection and restoration of coral reefs elsewhere. Already, 25 percent of the world’s coral reefs have been lost, and it is predicted that another 25 percent will be lost within the next 20 years.


60 Minutes - CBS Our 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.


Developing Solutions for Invasive Lionfish

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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 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.


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


Cuba’s Gulf of Mexico

Since 2003, we have collaborated closely with CIM on Proyecto Costa Noroccidental (Project of the Northwestern Coast), a comprehensive multi-year research and scientific exchange program for Cuba’s Gulf of Mexico coast. The project exemplifies the level of collaboration possible when long-term relationships are forged. Once the least-explored region of Cuba’s marine environment, the project has yielded the first detailed maps of Cuba’s Gulf of Mexico marine resources, identifying and describing the principal human uses and threats, provides recommendations for the conservation of the region’s ecosystems particularly coral reefs, fish and sea turtles, and establishing a framework for long term collaboration between the United States, Cuba and Mexico that addresses important cross-boundary marine environmental issues. This work is helping support the Master’s and Doctoral theses of dozens of students at CIM, the only institution in Cuba where marine scientists are accredited.



PBS NatureOur work in Cuba’s Gulf of Mexico waters was featured on the PBS series, NATURE.



Advancing the Sustainability of Cuba’s Coastal Communities


Valuing Cuba’s Natural Resources: Applying the Principles of Environmental Economics in Cuba

Environmental Economics

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

The field of environmental economics examines the economic dimensions of environmental policies, a key goal being to balance economic activity and associated environmental impacts by considering and quantifying all costs and benefits. Environmental economics emerged to address shortcomings in traditional economic methods which failed to adequately value natural ecosystems, account for the benefits they provide to human society and the economic losses associated with their degradation.

Environmental economics are a core component of Cuba’s Law 81, also known as the Law of the Environment. Article 88 states that the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment (Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología y Medio Ambiente, CITMA) “in coordination with other responsible agencies and bodies, will direct actions intended to promote the economic evaluation of biological diversity.” Article 88 also states that CITMA will “adopt or propose the adoption, as appropriate, of economic and social incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.” CITMA considers the application of environmental economics in its policymaking efforts as one its highest national priorities.

Cuba has made a national commitment to establishing 25 percent of its coastal waters in protected areas and the country is well on its way to achieving this goal. However, it is important to anticipate that pressures on Cuba’s natural resources – including its protected areas – will increase in the coming years. The need for robust economic analysis will be essential to ensure the long-term protection of these resources and the environmental policies that have the best chance of enduring future change are those based on the best, most defensible science, and developed with strong public understanding, input and participation.

Ocean Doctor and the Cuban Center for Coastal Ecosystem Research (Centro de Investigaciones de Ecosistemas Costeros, CIEC) are leading a series of workshops – in collaboration with Cuba’s environmental economists at CITMA and the National Center for Protected Areas (Centro Nacional de Areas Protegidas, CNAP) and U.S. partners including World Resources Institute (WRI) and the UCSB Bren School of Environmental Science & Management – focused on improving economic valuation methods in Gardens of the Queen (Jardines de la Reina) National Park, assessing the growing economic importance of ecotourism, and examining financial mechanisms to ensure the economic sustainability of the Park.

Gardens of the Queen is highly regarded as a great success in restoring fish and coral populations and today represents one of the healthiest marine ecosystems in the Caribbean. It is also considered a strong success in improving economic conditions for local communities, including individuals who used to fish in Gardens of the Queen, many of whom are now employed in the ecotourism sector.

As Cuba’s first marine protected area (MPA), Gardens of the Queen has played a key role in establishing precedent for Cuba’s other MPAs and it is anticipated that this role will continue. Therefore, achieving success in Gardens of the Queen is seen as a critical, pivotal step toward establishing sound and meaningful protections in the rest of Cuba’s network of MPAs.

Placing an economic value on natural ecosystems -- like this coral reef ecosystem at Gardens of the Queen -- is a key part of our collaborative work.

Placing an economic value on Cuba’s natural ecosystems — like this coral reef ecosystem at Gardens of the Queen — is mandated by Cuban environmental law and critical to informing sound conservation policy and a key part of our collaborative work. (Photo: D. Guggenheim)

Our work is focused upon three objectives:

  1. Economic Valuation: Our work will lead to a major update of initial Cuban studies estimating the true economic value accrued from protecting Gardens of the Queen. These data will be used to inform future policy discussions affecting the fate of the area. Methodologies will developed for assessing the value of natural resources in Gardens of the Queen with an eye toward applying these methodologies to other natural areas within the country.
  2. Maximizing Influence, Effectiveness: Based upon case studies of economic valuations in other regions, we are working to ensure the planned study has the maximum effectiveness and influence on environmental policy in Cuba.
  3. Economic Sustainability: Our work seeks to ensure the future economic sustainability of the park, identifying new income streams and financial instruments to ensure that ongoing management, research and conservation efforts are adequately funded in perpetuity.


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


Sustainable Aquaculture

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Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS), like this one in Malaysia, recirculate 99% of their water, have no discharge, require no chemicals or antibiotics, and can provide a sustainable, local food source (Photo: D. Guggenheim)



Basal, a new Cuban governmental agency, was established to advance the production of local, sustainable food in a changing climate. Its motto: “Adaptación es Vida — Adaptation is Life.”

In partnership with Cuba’s new intergovernmental agency, Basal, and the Recirculating Farms Coalition, Ocean Doctor is planning a workshop in 2014 to examine the implementation of next-generation aquaculture technologies to support sustainable, locally-grown food sources. Basal was established largely in response to the threat of climate change to Cuba’s agricultural production and is focused on adaptation and the production of sustainable, locally-grown food.

Basal has asked Ocean Doctor to help Cuban communities explore the potentially strong fit for next-generation aquaculture technology. Next-generation recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) represent a key part of the solution to meet future demand for protein from the sea. RAS systems excel across a broad range of both environmental and socioeconomic factors where other forms of aquaculture fall short.



Educational & Cultural Exchanges

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Ocean Doctor is increasing its efforts on educational and cultural exchanges with Cuba. Here Ocean Doctor president, Dr. David E. Guggenheim, teaches a class about marine science to a first-grade class in Cuba (Photo: G. Bucksbaum)

Building on the foundation of marine science and the need for strong international collaboration, Ocean Doctor is developing a number of educational and cultural exchanges to foster exchange of information and citizen diplomacy.

In 2013, Ocean Doctor launched a people-to-people educational travel program for U.S. citizens and residents (see our program announcement). We are working with a prominent international ocean film festival to hold its first-ever festival event in Havana. We are also working on an exchange to bring young students to Cuba as an exchange with Cuban children focused on marine science.



Environmental Diplomacy

Cuban scientists meet with Congress, State Department

Cuban scientists meet with Congress, State Department in 2014. Ocean Doctor is leading efforts to establish the first-ever government-to-government dialogue on elevating collaboration in marine science and conservation between the U.S. and Cuba (Photo: D. Guggenheim)

In 2007, Ocean Doctor president Dr. David E. Guggenheim led the creation of the Trinational Initiative for Marine Science and Conservation in the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean to increase collaboration in marine science and conservation among Cuba, Mexico and the United States.

Due to the U.S. embargo against Cuba and lack of formal diplomatic relations, U.S. government participation in the Trinational Initiative has been minimal. Therefore, Ocean Doctor has been leading efforts to establish the first-ever government-to-government dialogue on elevating collaboration in marine science and conservation between the U.S. and Cuba.

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








Support Ocean Doctor’s Cuba Conservancy Program
Ocean Doctor is a program of The Baum Foundation. Your donation is secure and tax-deductible in the U.S.




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