Cuba’s fishing communities fight hardships with sustainable practices

On the surface, the remote, tightly
knit village of Playa Florida—on Cuba’s south central coast–hasn’t changed much
over the last 50 years.

Most of the town’s 514
inhabitants either fish or depend on fishing for their livelihoods. State-owned
shrimp trawlers, many decades old, still ply the rich waters of the Gulf of Ana
Maria. And private fishermen use the
same small wooden fishing boats their parents and grandparents used to fish for
lane snapper and other species in mangrove-fringed lagoons and around nearby
keys.  Some of these boats have motors
built before the 1959 Cuban Revolution; others are powered only by muscle and
wind.

But amid so much continuity,
locals say, Playa Florida faces challenges that threaten its economy and way of life.

Hardships

At a recent gathering at the town’s
elementary school, one woman said she and her husband were fishing longer and
longer hours, but coming home with fewer and fewer fish. Another fisherman said
there is less diversity in his catch than in previous years and the fish tended
to be smaller. “Some of the big fish are simply gone,” he said.

Local residents who serve as crew
on the shrimp boats said they were making less money because shrimp harvests in
the Gulf were declining. And finally, many pointed to sea level rise that is
eroding shorelines and jeopardizing the town’s bustling summer tourism trade.

Playa Florida is not alone. Fishing communities throughout Cuba are facing
similar challenges.

While Cuba
boasts some of the Caribbean’s most intact marine ecosystems, for the past
several years overfishing has significantly contributed to the decline of once
pristine coral reef systems and thriving fish populations. Cuban scientists estimate that more than 40%
of commercially important fish species are overfished – posing a major threat to
Cuba’s fishing industry, food security and marine biodiversity.

Fighting back with sustainable fishing

The good news is that the Cuban
government is
taking steps at the national, regional and local levels to make fisheries more
sustainable.

For
example, earlier this year the Cuban government authorized the use of
cooperatives in a range of economic sectors, including fisheries. Well-designed fishery cooperatives in other
developing countries have shown to be effective in achieving social, economic and
conservation goals. They can work in
Cuba too.

In a couple of months, the
National Assembly is expected to enact a new fisheries policy that places
conservation and sustainability on an equal footing with production. Hopefully, science-based catch limits and
measures to reduce illegal fishing will be featured in the new law. Finally, national park officials have
proposed several new marine protected areas (MPAs) aimed at conserving coral
reefs, sea grass beds and mangrove forests, all of which are important habitats
for marine species.

At the
regional level, scientists and managers are developing programs along Cuba’s
southern coast to better integrate MPAs and fisheries management. This
initiative includes a proposal to expand the legendary Gardens of the Queen
national marine park, the largest marine park in the Caribbean and an important
sanctuary for sharks and other large fish.

At the
local level, a new community-based sustainable fisheries initiative called SOS Pesca is designed to give two small fishing
communities on Cuba’s southern coast a more direct role in the management of
fisheries and protected areas. Playa
Florida is one of the project’s two communities, along with Guayabal, a town of
4,200 in Las Tunas province.

The
principal goals of SOS Pesca are to
conserve critical coastal and marine habitats in and around the two villages through
new and expanded protected areas, to end overfishing through more sustainable
fishing practices and management approaches, and to identify alternative
livelihoods for those who wish to exit the fishery.

Fishermen in both
communities will be examining how fishery cooperatives and other tools can be
used to improve fishing conditions, increase revenues and sustain healthy fish
stocks for future generations. SOS Pesca
is supported by a grant from the European Union and is being implemented by the
Cuban National Center for Protected Areas, the Italian NGO COSPE, World
Wildlife Fund-Netherlands, and a variety of Cuban institutions. EDF is providing scientific support and
fisheries expertise to the initiative.

Cuba’s
biodiversity on land and sea is among the richest in the Caribbean. Many of its coral reefs are healthy and still
teeming with abundant populations of big fish not commonly seen elsewhere in
the region.  The government is now trying
to preserve that natural heritage, and the traditional ways of life that have
coexisted with it in places like Playa Florida.
Getting communities and fishermen directly involved in that process is
critically important.

As we
were leaving our meeting in Playa Florida, I met a fishermen who told me he had
seven children and all of them wanted to fish for a living.  “Fishing’s what we do. It’s our future,” he
said.

I
couldn’t agree with him more.

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