Thursday, November 12, 2009

Can Cuba’s Mysteries Help Save the World’s Coral Reefs?

by Ocean Doctor
July 18, 2008

Until that tranquil morning in late June 1974, the sum total of my SCUBA diving experience had been in a landlocked state, in a stifling, moldy indoor YMCA pool in the Philadelphia suburbs and a Pennsylvania quarry, flooded with icy soup-green water. Barely comprehending the new world of pungent humidity, mountainous afternoon cumulus clouds, and lush tangles of flowering succulents I experienced at water’s edge during my first visit to the Florida Keys, I was wholly unprepared later that morning when I found myself seated in sugar-white sand with 40 feet of warm, clear aquamarine water above my head. As impossibly multi-colored fish passed slowly within reach before my wide 15-year-old eyes, my gaze broadened as I marveled at the towering jetties of coral around us, living layer cakes of corals upon corals, brown and mustard rock-like structures, encrusted with brilliant red, violet and orange coralline fans and branches, swaying in the warm, nourishing current and, like eager spring blossoms, reaching toward the dancing sunlight scattered on the surface above. Even in those first minutes face-to-face with a coral reef, the enormity of what I was witnessing was clear to me. I remember thinking, “There’s a whole living world going on down here, and we don’t know anything about it.” While I may have suspected in those moments that I would dedicate my career to something having to do with the oceans, I never would have dreamed that more than three decades later I would be literally immersed in some of the most important work of my life just 90 miles to the south of where I was seated beneath the waves.

Last week, as I departed Ft. Lauderdale and the 11th International Coral Reef Symposium, the world’s largest coral summit held every four years, the news was sobering. One-third of the world’s corals are well on their way to outright extinction, and the rest are threatened with, among other things, the indignant end of simply dissolving away, as increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from fossil fuel emissions enters the oceans, raising their acidity to the point where any ocean creature with a calcium carbonate shell — from corals to clams — succumbs to the acid waters. When my daughter was 15 and floated above that same reef I had experienced, it had become a pale shadow of the miracle of nature I had so delighted in. Nearly half the corals in the Florida Keys have died in my lifetime. Some are bleached bone white, others shackled in diseased bands of black. Many more lie smothered in broad blankets of algal slime which have robbed the reef of its rainbow of colors, leaving a lifeless green-gray skeleton where countless diversity once eeked from every imaginable crack and crevice. As I beheld this tragic image, little did I imagine that important clues to saving this reef and many more like it around the Caribbean and the world, might lie just 90 miles to the south.

I now sort through assorted dive gear, video equipment, and sunscreen preparing for my 37th visit to that magical place 90 miles to the south, to an island larger than all the other Caribbean islands combined, to an island whose coat of arms bears a key — “llave del golfo“, the key to the Gulf of Mexico — a subtropical nexus where the waters of the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean intertwine in a sublime undersea cocktail of diversity, color and mystery. Our fourth joint expedition of Proyecto Costa Noroccidental (Project of the Northwest Coast) — a project of the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (Centro de Investigaciones Marinas: CIM) and the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi — will continue our ongoing project to explore the most unknown corner of the Gulf of Mexico: Cuba’s northwest coastal waters.

A green sea turtle hatchling at Cuba's westernmost point, Guanahacabibes

It is often said that those 90 miles of open water south of the Florida Keys — the Straits of Florida — separate Cuba and the USA. Like a hand-drawn blue borderline, the Straits are often invoked as a symbol of the 50-year-old Cold War that has frozen our two countries so tantalizingly close, yet so tragically far apart. But to the sea turtles, sharks, lobster, whales and other sea life, those same 90 miles of blue unite our countries with racing blue currents, unseen underwater pathways, and a web of colorful life that defies the perceptions of so many of the Gulf of Mexico, who know it only as a hot, muddy cauldron that spawns hurricanes and oil platforms. Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. share the Gulf of Mexico and have a responsibility to work together to understand and protect it. Thankfully, despite debilitating restrictions, which are ever-changing in the cool winds of Cold War politics, we have worked for a solid eight years now with our Cuban colleagues, advancing our understanding of the Gulf of Mexico and providing research opportunities for Cuba’s next generation of marine scientists — nearly 20 have based their Masters and Ph.D. research on our joint projects.

Cuba’s northwest coast – the verdant Pinar del Río province, home to Cuba’s legendary cigars — is the least-developed coastal region of Cuba. But as Cuba’s tourism trade continues to develop and as Cuba’s fledgling offshore oil development expands into the Gulf, we hope that the insights from our joint research help to guide the hand of such development so that some of Cuba’s most precious assets, its coral reefs, will be spared the all too common fate I’ve seen elsewhere in the Caribbean. And there is much at stake.

As we dove during the second expedition, it was as if we had been transported decades backward in time, to the healthy, vibrant, towering reefs I remember from my mid-teens. The reefs I have seen in the Archepiélago de Los Colorados, the barrier reef that runs along Cuba’s northwest coast, are the healthiest I have seen in my life. For that reason, and because of its unique history and geography, Cuba may hold important clues for coral reefs elsewhere in the Caribbean and perhaps around the world. Good friend and colleague, Dr. Gaspar González-Sansón, titular professor at University of Havana, CIM, and co-principal investigator of Proyecto Costa Noroccidental, recently pointed to a number of possible reasons for the health of Cuba’s reefs when we spoke when I was recently in Havana:

Cuba’s tourism industry did not begin until 1993, necessitated by the demise of
the Soviet Union and its aid to the island. Though tourism has proceeded at a
rapid pace, it is highly localized at specific resort areas on the coasts. The
healthiest reefs also happen to be far from shore, such as Los Colorados to the
north and Jardines de la Reina to the south, perhaps beyond the reach of harmful
concentrations of coastal pollution.

Cuban commercial fishing vessel in the Gulf of MexicoCuba does have a commercial fishing fleet, but fishermen principally use hook and line, so unlike nets and trawls which result in catching just about everything, fishing in Cuba is highly selective. In contrast, more than 80 percent of what’s caught in U.S. Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawls is not shrimp — it’s small finfish and other creatures collectively known as “bycatch” that represent the unforgivable waste of this fishing practice. Cuba is now phasing out all bottom trawling on its continental shelf.

In the early days of the revolution, President Fidel Castro declared, “Not one drop of water to the sea,” a call to action to dam rivers and streams in order to divert water for use in agriculture and population centers. Reducing fresh water input upset the delicate balance of fresh and salt water in Cuba’s estuaries, resulting in the disappearance of populations intolerant to the saltier waters, such as the white shrimp. In another way, however, this policy may have inadvertently served to help reefs by reducing the transport of fertilizers and pesticides to the reefs. Use of fertilizers and pesticides has dropped dramatically since the withdrawal of the Soviet Union. Given that nutrient pollution is a key factor in the growth of coral-smothering algae, this may also be an important factor.

In countless ways, the island of Cuba is unique. And when it comes to coral reefs, Cuba is again, unique. Here an island of thriving corals flourishes amid a world of corals dying and disappearing. In this mysterious corner of the Gulf of Mexico where time seems to have stopped, I find hope. Hope that the rich ecosystems of this beautiful island will endure. And I find hope that Cuba’s coral reefs might share some of their tantalizing secrets, secrets that can offer clues to protecting and restoring coral reefs elsewhere, including a special place I still remember in the Florida Keys, just 90 miles to the north.

Can Cuba

Can Cuba’s Mysteries Help Save the World’s Coral Reefs?

Posted using ShareThis

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cuba orders extreme measures to cut energy use

11 Nov 2009
* Cuba's energy situation termed "critical"
* Some factories, workshops to be closed through December
* Most other economic activities to be reduced
By Marc Frank
HAVANA, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Cuba has ordered all state enterprises to adopt "extreme measures" to cut energy usage through the end of the year in hopes of avoiding the dreaded blackouts that plagued the country following the 1991 collapse of its then-top ally, the Soviet Union. In documents seen by Reuters, government officials have been warned that the island is facing a "critical" energy shortage that requires the closing of non-essential factories and workshops and the shutting down of air conditioners and refrigerators not needed to preserve food and medicine. Cuba has cut government spending and slashed imports after being hit hard by the global financial crisis and the cost of recovering from three hurricanes that struck last year. "The energy situation we face is critical and if we do not adopt extreme measures we will have to revert to planned blackouts affecting the population," said a recently circulated message from the Council of Ministers. "Company directors will analyze the activities that will be stopped and others reduced, leaving only those that guarantee exports, substitution of imports and basic services for the population," according to another distributed by the light industry sector. President Raul Castro is said to be intent on not repeating the experience of the 1990s, when the demise of the Soviet Union and the loss of its steady oil supply caused frequent electricity blackouts and hardship for the Cuban public. The directives follow government warnings in the summer that too much energy was being used and blackouts would follow if consumption was not reduced. All provincial governments and most state-run offices and factories, which encompasses 90 percent of Cuba's economic activity, were ordered in June to reduce energy use by a minimum of 12 percent or face mandatory electricity cuts. The measures appeared to resolve the crisis as state-run press published stories about the amount of energy that had been saved and the dire warnings died down. The only explanation given for the earlier warnings was that Cuba was consuming more fuel than the government had money to pay for. The situation is not as dire as in the 1990s because Cuba receives 93,000 barrels per day of crude oil, almost two-thirds of what it consumes, from Venezuela. It pays for the oil by providing its energy-rich ally with medical personnel and other professionals. Cuba has been grappling with the global economic downturn, which has slashed revenues from key exports, dried up credit and reduced foreign investment. The communist-run Caribbean nation also faces stiff U.S. sanctions that include cutting access to international lending institutions, and it is still rebuilding from last year's trio of hurricanes that caused an estimated $10 billion in damages. In response, the government has cut spending, slashed imports, suspended many debt payments and frozen bank accounts of foreign businesses. It reported last week that trade was down 36 percent so far this year due mainly to a more than 30 percent reduction in imports.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cuba's blogosphere has developed a sharper edge

Nov. 09, 2009

Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, speaks during a interview with AFP in Havana, on May 6, 2008. Sanchez won the Ortega y Gasset prize in Spain for digital journalism for her critical Internet blog on Cuban reality. Cuban authorities have refused to give a travel visa to Sanchez so she can receive one of Spain's top journalism awards in Madrid on Wednesday, said Spanish newspaper El Pais which hands out the awards annually. When a dozen Cuban bloggers wanted to stage a protest last month, they simultaneously tweeted, texted and posted messages like ``Freedom.''

One later used a blond wig to sneak into a government building and complain against censorship of the Internet. And the next day, she posted a video of her complaint on her blog. Carefully, but with daring determination, some Cubans whose blogs once focused largely on the frustrations of daily life are moving toward sharp-edged commentaries and activities that some fear will eventually lead to a crackdown by the communist government. ``We do not have a common position . . . but yes, some people have been doing actions that go beyond the click and the keyboard and try to exercise the rights of a free person,'' said Reynaldo Escobar of the Havana blog Desde Aquí (From Here). Some bloggers indeed have become ``more assertive, more confrontational, more pushing the limits -- and pushing their luck,'' said Ted Henken, a Baruch College professor who is writing a paper on the social implications of the Cuban blogosphere's growth.

In fact, on Friday the best known of the Cuban bloggers, Yoani Sánchez, reported that she and another blogger were detained and beaten severely by state security agents, apparently to keep them from joining a peaceful march in Havana organized by young musicians. Cuba's blogosphere is tiny for an island of 11.5 million people. About 200 blogs have official approval and 100 don't, among them dissident journalists and human rights activists, according to a recent report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. But about 15 bloggers have captured widespread attention at home and abroad -- sometimes becoming better known than political dissidents -- with posts that challenge the government and break its monopoly on information entering and leaving the island. While human rights activists report ``the sufferings on the island, which are indeed tragic,'' said Henken, the usually younger bloggers tend to use more humor and nonpolitical language to connect with young Cubans and foreigners. ``They appeal to a new generation that speaks their language, the language of social networks'' like blogs and Facebook, he added. ``They appeal to people like my students, who have no politics.''

Escobar said some of the bloggers -- sometimes called alternative bloggers to differentiate them from government-approved and dissident writers -- have now decided ``their purpose is not just to be on the Web but to express their individual will to come together in a place, on an issue.'' They have arranged three ``virtual protests'' since May, but their largest came on Oct. 20, the anniversary of the day the Cuban national anthem was first sung, when a dozen Cuban bloggers and about 100 other sites coordinated their posts, text messages, tweets and other Web activities for Blogacción -- Blog Action. Escobar wrote that if he had a microphone for only two seconds he would ask for ``freedom.'' Myriam Celaya blogged demanding Internet access for all. Claudia Cadelo wrote that she dreamed of the release of blogger Pablo Pacheco, who has been jailed since 2003 but dictates his post to Cadelo, who then arranges to have them posted on Voz Tras Las Rejas -- Voice from behind Bars.

``It's a matter of trying to grease the machinery for online protests,'' Sánchez, 34, wrote about the Oct. 20 event in her blog Generación Y. The total number of participants is unknown, but Google reported 22,000 searches for the words ``Blogacción'' and ``Cuba.'' Six days later, Escobar and Sánchez, who are married, hosted the first session of the Bloggers Academy of Cuba, a series of training sessions for some 30 would-be bloggers in their Havana apartment that includes technology, photography, ethics and the legalities of the Internet. And three days after that, Sánchez sneaked into a government-run cultural center that was hosting a discussion on the Internet. While other cyberactivists were barred from entering, Sánchez took off her wig and launched a withering critique of the government's ``ideological filter'' on the Internet. A video of her comments -- and the thin applause she received -- was posted on her blog hours later. The government has long tried to control Cubans' access to the Internet, putting restrictions on computers and subscriptions, keeping prices high and blocking access to unfriendly sites, including most alternative blogs. It also has assigned university students of computer sciences to post comments supporting the government and attacking its critics.
But Cubans have found myriad ways to get around the roadblocks: Passwords for Internet access sell on the black market for $10 a month. People with access download information to CDs and USB thumb drives and pass them on to others, who then copy the data and pass it further on. One file being passed around instructs cybernauts on how to get around government blocks on the unfriendly blogs and other websites. Yosvani Anzardo, a young engineer from the eastern province of Holguín, even established the digital newspaper Covadonga and an private e-mail system called Red Libertad -- Liberty Net -- by reprogramming his laptop to work as a much more powerful server. Then there's Bluetooth, which allows the rapid transfer of files such as forbidden books, songs and foreign news reports between cellphones that are near each other, without going through telephone or computer lines. Security agents probably don't realize the impact of Bluetooth, Escobar said. ``Those people studied in the KGB and maybe now they are studying in China, but their knowledge is antiquated,'' he said in a telephone interview from Havana.
© 2009 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.