Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?


Part 2 of our Interview with Dan Whittle – EDF and Cuba

Dan Whittle speaking engagement in Havana. Photo courtesy: Dan Whittle

This year, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) celebrated 20 years of collaboration with Cuba in marine ecosystems conservation and rebuilding fisheries. In honor of this anniversary of scientific cooperation, we approached EDF’s Senior Director and Attorney, Dan Whittle, to understand how EDF became involved in this long-term mutually beneficial relationship. This is Part 2 of our interview with Mr Whittle and Elise Hartill, M.Sc., a marine scientist and National Geographic Explorer who studied at the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences, for Cuba Business Report.

Elise Hartill: You already touched on a few of the questions I have, it sounds like EDF’s work in Cuba is multifaceted and based in collaboration, which is great. Well managed fisheries can be an asset to conservation. Can you explain how fishers and the community take part in the work that you do or how you take part in the work that they’re doing in regard to stewardship and conservation of coral reefs?

Dan Whittle:

That’s a great question. Historically there have been lots of conflicts over commercial fisheries and even recreational fisheries, where typically fishermen feel like they’re pitted against the government and against environmental groups. And the feeling is that there are just too many rules. Fishers know the water better than anyone else, and may think, “just leave us alone to do our work.” But as we’ve seen in the U.S. since the late seventies, and in Canada, with the collapse of cod in the North Atlantic, and really around the world, overfishing is a serious problem. Good science and good regulations are needed to ensure that sustainability is achieved. The mistake that was made historically is that government just kind of came in and tried to solve the problem unilaterally. And for years, environmental groups would too.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

The government would basically say “here’s the limit. You can’t fish over that limit. Here are the rules.” And there was no real dialogue. Fishermen felt further and further disenfranchised.

Starting in the mid- to late nineties in the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually, in New England and the West Coast, fishermen and environmental groups discovered that if they work together, they can achieve common ground solutions. Everyone has an interest in ensuring that fish stocks are sustainable. Fishermen have an economic interest. The public has an interest in making sure that ecologically, marine life is intact for all of the many benefits they provide, consumers want to make sure they have a steady supply of local seafood. So, there’s a common interest.

And we and other groups started working in the U.S. with fishermen in the late nineties and early 2000s to figure that out and, over time, the U.S. has become a success story; overfishing of most stocks has ended, in so many cases, because conservation groups and commercial fishermen are working together.

So much of the conflict, not all of the conflict, but so much of the conflict is gone. In a place like Cuba, it’s a similar approach. Historically, decisions have been made in Havana by the agencies responsible for managing the fish stocks. Even with the small scale fisheries that they have in Cuba, and fishermen don’t have sophisticated technology or sophisticated boats, but they still saw fish stocks steadily decline since the 1980s, and scientists in Cuba kept pointing the finger to overfishing and saying “we have to stop doing that.”

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

But there was a real tension between imposing more rules on fishermen who were just barely making a living. The government was reluctant to choose between jobs, food, and the environment. When we began working with Cuban scientists and Cuban policymakers on this, they basically said, “we know there’s a problem, but we need the science to back it up and we don’t have the data.” So, one thing we began doing is using something scientists called data-poor methodologies. Basically, it’s a way to assess the status of fish populations without having a lot of empirical data. By looking at the life histories of different species, for example. And so we collaborated with Cuban scientists and managers on that. And through that collaboration, they were able to develop a national fisheries assessment that evaluated how vulnerable fish populations around the Island were to overfishing.

The key to that exercise was that they did not operate in a vacuum. At each and every workshop, there were either fishermen or representatives of the seafood and fishing industries. They were able to provide so much information that the scientists didn’t have access to or didn’t know. Scientists were relieved and surprised to find out that fishermen were worried too.

They didn’t want to just give up or reduce fishing for the sake of it, but they knew something had to be done. So, it was an opportunity to have a conversation of what to do. And, as in the U.S., everyone began to realize that everyone should have a voice. Through that dialogue, relationships would happen. Collaborations would happen. And so that’s what the approach was. Now fast forward to the present. Cuba adopted a new fisheries law in 2019, that requires science-based fisheries management for the first time ever, embraces the private commercial fishing sector, legitimizes them, and gives private, commercial fishermen retirement benefits, among other things.

The new law is an official recognition that fishermen have a voice in management and in the science process, both of which have become highly participatory. And that’s just one result of collaboration and exchange. We also, I should mention, over the years have facilitated exchanges between Cuban fishermen, scientists, decision-makers, conservationists, with counterparts in the U.S. and beyond, in Mexico, Latin America and parts of Europe. And the theory behind those exchanges is you just get people in the same room. Though the fisheries in Cuba are nothing like the fisheries off the northwest coast of the U.S., fishermen all over the world speak the same language. And it’s remarkable when you get people in the same room, how much they can learn from each other. And again, that’s been a really effective way to make change in the environment.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

And finally, I’ll want to mention a floating workshop we hosted in 2011 off the south coast of Cuba, in the Gulf of Batabano. We invited government officials from the U.S., Cuba and Mexico, fishermen from all three countries, scientists and conservationists. We got everyone on a boat, 21 of us. We spent four days at sea and two days on land talking to each other. We even had a senior government official for NOAA. This was in 2011, when things like that didn’t happen. And it worked! One of the Cuban fishermen said, “we have to talk together because we share the same ocean.” That 2011 floating workshop was really the foundation, in my opinion, for eventual relationships between government officials in the US and Cuba, when those relationships were few and far between, and those relationships ultimately blossomed once diplomatic relations were restored.

Ms Hartill: That sounds like a success story in the Caribbean. What would you attribute the successful preservation of healthy marine ecosystems to in Cuba? Given that Cuba has some of the few healthy coral reefs in the Caribbean. Would you call it a success or a work in progress?

Mr Whittle:

That’s a good question. I would say it’s both. I would say comparatively Cuba is a success story and it’s a work in progress because nothing’s permanent, changes are happening beyond Cuba’s control, climate change for example. But there’s a lot within its control as it grows its economy. It’s imperative to continue to strike the right balance, to recognize that coral reef ecosystems are just like capital, natural capital, that fuels the economy, and protects people’s lives and livelihoods. I think there’s a pretty strong recognition of that. The Cuban people, as well as the Cuban government, see climate change as an existential threat to people living on the coast around the country. And for years, they’ve devoted a lot of the resources to better understanding the potential impacts of climate change and in developing models for the impacts of sea level rise.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

And they’ve taken steps to mitigate impacts. Along the way, Cuban scientists have indicated that one of our greatest protections against climate change is helping coral reefs, which are healthy for a variety of reasons, not because of some accident, not because Cuba is lost in history, not because of its isolation. While all of that may have played some role, Cuba hasn’t developed in the same ways as most of the rest of the Caribbean, possibly in part because of politics but more importantly, starting 30 years ago, Cuba started affirmatively and proactively putting policies in place to protect its natural capital.

So, I think the coral reefs, on the whole, are in pretty decent shape because scientists understand, the people understand, and more and more of the people making decisions on the economic development understand the importance of their conservation.

The Gardens of the Queen, the national park off the south-central coast, which I encourage you as a diver to go check out, is considered by many to be the most spectacular marine park in the entire Caribbean.

Not only because of its incredibly vibrant corals and diversity, but because of its abundance of fish, big fish. You can dive in other places in the Caribbean and see remarkable corals, but the Gardens of the Queen has the biomass that scientists talk about, the abundance that’s been achieved by protecting the area for over 25 years. They’ve seen the fish rebound and they’ve seen the spillover. Fish leave the park and provide benefits to fishermen fishing outside of the park. So that’s been a real success story and it’s something that’s caught the attention of Havana since the Gardens of the Queen is now known around the world, it is hugely a sought after destination, for diving and fly fishing and the Cuban government has understood that it makes good sense to protect this area.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

Related News

One interesting statistic is that people will pay a lot of money to come to the Gardens of the Queen to dive with big sharks. An economist in Cuba did a study and I can’t remember the exact figures but determined that a live shark in the national park was worth two or three hundred thousand dollars versus a shark on the dock which is worth about a hundred bucks. So, placing a value on ecosystems and the services they provide has also helped make the case that if you want to successfully grow the economy, you’ve got to focus on protecting the environment. But now looking ahead, they have to write the next chapter.

This interview will be continued in Part 3 tomorrow. Read Part One of our interview with Dan Whittle here.

Related News:


So if I only could I’d make a deal with god, And I’d get him to swap our places, I’d be running up that...


In this interview, we take a look what Cuba offers in the way of protections for foreign investors. It is the second interview I...

Agriculture and Food

Turkey and Cuba have signed a cooperation agreement in the agriculture and fisheries sectors. Turkey’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, Akif Özkaldi, and...


This week we have the pleasure of an interview with the Cuban artist, Denys San Jorge Rodriguez. The Covid pandemic has caused not only...

error: This content is copyright protected.