For the first time in decades, scientists from Cuba and the US are officially collaborating on Gulf of Mexico research. Lygia Navarro reports from Sarasota, Florida.
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LISA MULLINS: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is the World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Oil on the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico is “undermining the ecosystem from the bottom up.” That’s the conclusion of one Gulf scientist. And another says that parts of the Gulf’s floor are covered in oil and that the region is a “graveyard” for tiny animals. These and other researchers say the oil probably came from this year’s BP spill. In the wake of that disaster, scientists are examining the health of the Gulf more closely than ever. And for the first time in decades, researchers from the US and CUBA are cooperating on Gulf science. We get that story from Lygia Navarro in Sarasota, Florida.
LYGIA NAVARRO: At Sarasota’s Mote marine laboratory, a researcher shows visiting scientists a rare and vulnerable albino sea turtle.
FEMALE SPEAKER: We want her floating at the surface, nice and calm. And we want her to be just right in front of her target.
NAVARRO: The scientists gaze wide-eyed at the turtle, and the well-equipped facilities. They’re Cuban, and they’re here for a meeting of what’s called the Trinational Initiative for Marine Science and Conservation in the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean. The name is a mouthful, but the purpose is simple, says Cuban ecologist Fabian Pina.
FABIAN PINA: Sharing our knowledge, our information, and our expertise to improve our management of marine and coastal ecosystems.
NAVARRO: Protecting the health of the Gulf is vital to both Cuba and the US, but they haven’t worked together on Gulf science on an official basis for 50 years. Former American diplomat Wayne Smith says that doesn’t make sense.
WAYNE SMITH: It really can’t be done on a strictly national basis. There has to be international cooperation.
NAVARRO: The initiative was Smith’s idea. He ran the US diplomatic mission in Havana from 1979 to 1982 and is now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. The first two meetings, starting in 2007, were held in Mexico, neutral ground in the diplomatic divide and the third partner on the Gulf. The group set its focus on a range of issues, from managing nature preserves to studying marine mammals. Last year’s meeting was held in Havana. This year for the first time, the Cuban participants were allowed to come to the US, and a US government scientist finally got government permission to attend. Bill Kiene is a science coordinator with the US National Marine Sanctuaries System.
BILL KIENE: Protecting our marine environment does not mean stopping at our borders. The ecosystems are connected. And so if we can help support the condition of those ecosystems in Mexico, Cuba, we’re really helping to support our own ecosystems.
NAVARRO: Kiene’s appearance reflects a subtle shift under the new leadership in both Washington and Havana, according to Dan Whittle, of the Environmental Defense Fund.
DAN WHITE: There is some fertile ground for cooperation. It’s not much yet. But the two countries are trying to find safe areas in which to work, areas which are mutually beneficial. And the environment is one of those.
NAVARRO: And the growing cooperation is timely. David Guggenheim, of the Ocean Foundation in Washington, says the group sprang into quick action after the BP oil spill.
DAVID GUGGENHEIM: We were able to activate an emergency task force right away to resolve questions that our Cuban colleagues and our Mexican colleagues were asking, and prepare our government for emergency response. We had a very good Rolodex. And relationships to go with all those names.
NAVARRO: The exchange may become even more important in years ahead. News broke recently that Cuba will allow drilling for oil in its gulf waters. There are concerns that Cuba may be even less prepared for an oil-related disaster than the US was. And climate change poses other pressing threats to all of the Gulf’s neighbors. However, the group still faces big challenges. With funding, continuing visa problems, limited internet access in Cuba, and the ongoing US-Cuba trade restrictions. Luis Barreras is with Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment.
LUIS BARRERAS: The relationship between scientists should be directed by scientific objectives, independent of the political situation. What we have now is that science is subordinate to politics.
NAVARRO: Still, the trinational group is inching forward. It ended its meeting in Sarasota with action plans for protecting coral, sea turtles and sharks. And the researchers have found more in common than their interest in marine life. Bob Hueter of the Mote laboratory and Consuelo Aguilar of the University of Havana, have forged a deep friendship through their five-year collaboration on shark populations.
BOB HUETER: The sea is a great equalizer.
CONSUELO AGUILAR: Any expedition, we share everything. So we go for breakfast, dinner, lunch together. And we work together, but at the same time, we talk about our families.
HUETER: Get to know each other as humans interested in conserving and saving this planet, and breaking through the problems that have existed in the past.
NAVARRO: For The World, I’m Lygia Navarro, Sarasota, Florida.
MULLINS: That report was produced with help from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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