Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day, marine biology and the Gardens of the Queen, Cuba.

In case you missed it, today is Earth Day.

In light of the special day, I thought I would write an update about the many novel things going on in the environmental and marine biology fields. And there are, indeed, many exciting things happening.

Last night, I caught the tail-end (pun intended) of a TV documentary about Belize and its marine life. Unsurprisingly, it showed a lot of the stunning marine life of the Cayes surrounding Belize, which was where I scuba dived when I visited. While I didn't see the whole documentary, I saw enough to be reminded that there is just something special about life in the Caribbean. There were video clips of giant groupers and sea turtles that brought me back to when I scuba dived in Belize, as well as Cuba. I'm always amazed at how much is going on in the Caribbean, in terms of marine science.

I recently watched a PBS documentary, "Journey to Planet Earth", with Matt Damon as narrator, talking about the dangers associated with our reckless exploitation of ocean resources, and overfishing. The documentary mentioned that, according to some calculations, we've caught 90 percent of the world's large fish, and we're working on the last 10 percent now. The targeting of the largest fish in the ocean by the fishing industry is a phenomenon I studied in university - it's called "fishing down the food web". Daniel Pauly, a fisheries scientist, has written about this in many scientific papers: because the fishing industry has consistently targeted fish at the highest trophic levels of the food web, the average size of fish in oceans has progressively decreased. Fisheries scientists use the mean trophic level of fish as one of the indicators of ecosystem health. The subject is highly topical within environmental groups and lobbies.

From my university studies, as well as my more recent research, I know that there are a few ways to tell if a marine ecosystem is healthy and in balance. For example, in the Gardens of the Queen in Cuba, the abundance of sharks living off the reefs is a good indicator of how healthy it is there. Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund (you can follow him on twitter) just recently spent time visiting the Gardens of the Queen, and told of the abundance of fish species and numbers of sharks in the Gardens of the Queen marine park. I remember similar sights from the reefs around Belize. Hol Chan marine reserve and Shark Ray Alley, just off of Ambergris Caye in Belize, were teeming with nurse sharks and rays.

It's encouraging to read about what groups like the EDF are doing to create marine protected areas, and safeguard vulnerable marine and coastal areas. EDF just put out another blog post about their important, collaborative marine research taking place in Cuba. Their post, Tri-national collaboration & research in the Gardens of the Queen: The expedition begins, details the most recent trip by scientists to the breathtaking reefs in the Gardens of the Queen, and the collaboration between scientists from Mexico, Cuba and the United States in collecting baseline biological and ecological data that will ultimately help manage Cuba's marine resources in a sustainable way.

Scientific technicians place a seine in a shallow lagoon in the Gardens of the Queen. Picture by Kendra Carr from the EDF blog.
 I loved reading about their boat trips and scientific excursions because it reminded me of the boat trips and marine surveys I participated in while visiting a remote island in Indonesia. Not only were there stunning reefs and immense biodiversity in Pulau Hoga, Sulawesi, but we also had a sense of performing our research while leaving as small of a footprint on the local ecosystem as possible. Those were the weeks we showered with less than 3 cups of water a day.

The scientific divers from the University of St. Andrews. March 2009.
Snorkeling in the mangroves around Pulau Hoga, SE Sulawesi, Indonesia. March 2009.

Two fellow St. Andrews divers taking part in underwater surveys of anemones. March 2009.
I will leave you with two excerpts from the EDF blog post that I really loved:

"[...] in one special corner of the Caribbean, the Gardens of the Queen archipelago, has remained remarkably resilient in the face of this collective pressure.  A Caribbean marine paradise, The Gardens consist of more than 600 cays and islands and is home to the largest contiguous reserve in the Caribbean at 2,170 square kilometers.  It supports a mosaic of mangrove, seagrass, patch reefs, fringing red and reef slope and is abundant with fish, sharks and other marine life."

"Fish and other species depend upon the services and resources this connected set of marine ecosystems provides.  Therefore, understanding how individuals, species and nutrients are distributed, and how they move between the Gardens of the Queen, the Gulf of Ana Maria and nearshore coastal waters of Cuba is a key step towards improving management of fisheries and marine biodiversity in Cuba.  Oceanic currents spread larvae, fish and other material from the Gardens of the Queen to other regions of the Caribbean, meaning that management decisions in Cuba have implications for the wider ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. Achieving truly sustainable Cuban fisheries requires that management officials recognize this interconnectivity and the underlying support ecosystem for those fisheries."

The implications of this research from the Gardens of the Queen, and the inter-connectivity of the marine environments within the Caribbean, should make clear to the governments of countries in the region the immense need for cooperation on every level.

An interesting side note: Havana is the number one "Destination on the Rise" (see it here), according to the 2013 Travelers' Choice Awards from Trip Advisor.

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