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Cuba boosts marine protected coverage with new area spanning reefs to mangroves

Hawksbill turtle. Image © Noel Lopez / WCS.

  • Cuba recently declared that it had established a new marine protected area off the country’s northwestern coast known as the Este del Archipiélago de Los Colorados.
  • The new MPA spans 728 square kilometers (281 square miles), and will provide protection for a number of species, like hawksbill turtles, Antillean manatees, and reef fish like snappers and groupers.
  • The MPA was established with the support of the fishing community since the protected area should help replenish fish stocks.

Hawksbill turtles, Antillean manatees, and groupers — these are just a few inhabitants of a newly designated marine protected area (MPA) in Cuba.

This week, Cuba publicly announced that it had established the new MPA off its northwest coast in an area known as Este del Archipiélago de Los Colorados, which translates into English as “East of Los Colorados Archipelago.” Spanning 728 square kilometers (281 square miles), the MPA will provide protection for mangrove forests, seagrass beds and coral reefs, and helps boost the nation’s overall marine protected coverage to 28.5% of its marine continental shelf.

Natalia Rossi, the Cuba country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an organization that helped implement the MPA, said the new site is noteworthy since this part of the Cuban coastline previously lacked protection. Moreover, the region is an important spawning site for coral reefs and fish like groupers and snappers.

“[Research] shows that a lot of fish that spawn there provide the larvae for other populations in the region, including the southern United States,” Rossi told Mongabay. “There is a lot of connectivity also for migratory species, including North American shorebirds.”

The region hosts a range of other marine species, like critically endangered hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) and American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus).

Cuba’s newest MPA, Este del Archipiélago de Los Colorados, will help protect mangrove forests, seagrass beds and coral reefs. Image © Miguel Adrian Pino / WCS.

A third of the MPA comprises the Corona San Carlos Wildlife Refuge, a 272-km2 (105-mi2) stretch of the ocean, where no fishing will be allowed. The remaining two-thirds, however, will allow fishing under certain conditions.

Rossi said fishers were in support of the MPA as they understand that a no-take zone helps replenish local fish stocks.

“It was a really interesting process because when you work to create protected areas, there are a variety of scenarios that you can encounter,” she said. “In this case, fishers were in agreement from the get-go.”

Jose Gerhartz, a conservation specialist for the Caribbean Biological Corridor (CBC), a U.N. initiative that seeks to enhance biodiversity in the region, said that two organizations, Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez (FANJ) and Flora y Fauna, had organized workshops with community members and fishers so they could be a part of the decision-making process.

A map of the newly established MPA, Este del Archipiélago de Los Colorados, in Cuba. Image courtesy of WCS.

“They realized that the MPA could be a way to better manage the resources and have a longer-term sustainability of the fisheries,” Gerhartz told Mongabay. “Otherwise everything was going to be wiped away in a few years.”

Rossi said the area is already functioning as an MPA and there are staff in place to conduct environmental education, community engagement and biological monitoring.

The MPA was actually designated in October 2021, but the public announcement didn’t come until this week.

“The task now will be to continue to monitor species and coastal ecosystems,” Rossi said. “In time they are also preparing for a climate change adaptation project where they will conduct some coastal restoration [and to continue working on] the relationships with a fishing community and the communities that live nearby.”

Banner image caption: Hawksbill turtle. Image © Noel Lopez / WCS.