California Marine Science Educators Visit Cuba

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By Mark Friedman, a marine science educator with the San Pedro LA Maritime Institute, and organizer of the marine science educators’ group to Cuba.

A group of marine science educators from California visited Cuba early May to begin information exchange and collaboration with Cuban marine scientists and educators.


Members included George Matsumoto, education director for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI); Ann Close, USC Wrigley Marine Science Center; Joe Levine, co-author of the preeminent US high school biology textbook. Teachers from middle and high schools and environmentalists also participated.

The idea for the tour began when Science magazine published several articles on the efforts by the Cuban people, extending over 50 years to preserve their coral reefs.  Cuba’s coral reefs, it’s offshore archipelago (Jardin de la Reina) and Zapata Peninsula (largest mangrove in the region) are kept some of the most pristine in the Caribbean by preventing overfishing, pollution and enforcing strict environmental regulations.  Protecting native (endemic) species has been a goal of the Cuban people since the revolution began and Fidel Castro led the July 26 movement in mountainous and city battles against the US supported dictator Batista.

The tour began with the delegation participating in the Mayday parade, celebrating workers’ rights, Cuba’s internationalism and socialism, to end the U.S blockade of Cuba, return the US Guantanamo military base to the Cuba, solidarity with Venezuela –against US destabilization efforts, the legacy of Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara (50th anniversary of his assassination by the CIA in Bolivia). We marched with millions of Cuban workers, farmers and youth in contingents from schools, hospitals, factories and other international guests.

Most interesting where our conversations with Cuban international medical volunteers who freely treated patients in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Arab East; especially areas without doctors, electricity, running water or a health care system we take for granted here (despite new efforts by Washington to curtail coverage and cut Medicaid) or the advanced Cuban health care network.

We met with leaders of the Cuban National Aquarium (Acuario Nacional). Nearly 1 million Cubans visit this aquarium yearly. While not as flashy as the Aquarium of the Pacific (more like Cabrillo Aquarium), of unique interest are their innovative programs specially designed for autistic and Down’s syndrome children and those with cancer which to my knowledge are non-existent in our local aquaria.  This included hundreds of Russian children (with their parents) in Cuba for free medical care after their exposure to radiation poisoning at Chernobyl after the nuclear plant meltdown.

The aquarium has decades-long research associated with their coral reefs, animal husbandry, ocean acidification, coral bleaching and preservation of endangered species. They also face the Caribbean-wide problem of invasive lionfish. With government support they have developed sustainable aquaculture of shrimp and lobster.

Our tour was organized by the International Committee of Friendship with the People (ICAP) under the education category, one of 12 the US government permits.  The loosening of the travel ban is positive but the blockade is still in effect and the US still occupies Cuban soil with it’s military base at Guantánamo. 

Our objective was to learn how they have remarkably preserved their coral reefs. Worldwide, coral reefs are in rapid decline as water temperature rises; ecosystems change, diseases spread because organisms have less resiliency.  Organisms that can move, migrate, others like corals, expel their symbiotic zooxanthellae algae (coral bleaching) which produce oxygen and food for the living coral.  Unless conditions rapidly change and these algae are reintegrated, the corals die.  Coral reefs are critical for many fisheries (types of fish) consumed by humans and provide safe breeding grounds.

As George Matsumoto from MBARI commented in a report after snorkeling in Caleta Buena: “The water and the life within were so far beyond anything that I had expected. No evidence of bleaching, no evidence of marine algae taking over. Healthy corals, healthy sponges, diverse fish population, and on our way back into the lagoon – the largest school of fish that I have ever encountered! A remarkable and uplifting morning to see the healthy ecosystem.”

A recent meeting of the National Council of Ministers approved a State Plan to tackle global climate change, which according to Elba Rosa Pérez Montoya, minister of Science, Technology and Environment, “is worsening and will exacerbate environmental problems, making it a crucial factor for sustainable development.” “…a series of measures geared toward reducing the impact of natural weather events on vulnerable zones, such as prohibiting the construction of new homes in coastal settlements and reducing areas used for cultivation located close to the coast or to zones damaged by seawater intrusion into fresh water aquifers.”

There are 11 key objectives, including ensuring the availability and efficient use of water in order to mitigate drought; guarantee maximum protection of soil and water through reforestation efforts; rehabilitate, conserve and prevent the deterioration of coral reefs; as well as implementing other measures through programs, plans, and projects linked to renewable energy, energy efficiency, food security, health, and tourism.  (a plan that maybe Washington should implement- MF)

AMISTUR, the Cuban travel agency, organized a very efficient tour at a reasonable price.  We stayed in people’s houses called Casas Particulares, which enabled us to experience daily life, the pluses and minuses.  We traveled in a new comfortable van, with driver and bi-lingual tour guide. We ate too well! This was not always the case for Cubans nor visitors.

Cuba is rebounding from an economic crisis during the 1990 ’s stemming from the collapse of the Soviet Union and loss of 85% of foreign trade, when Cuba entered a special period.  Cubans lost weight due to reduced food imports, but their healthcare and right to free education, their international support missions to Africa and elsewhere did not falter.

The 50-year on-going blockade by the United States, is a reactionary measure hurting the Cuban people to be sure, but has also hurt Americans by preventing us from learning, discovering, and understanding Cuban culture, international missions and goals of their socialist society.

With aquaria and marine science centers across the state, delegation members are organizing a reciprocal tour of Cuban marine scientists / educators throughout California. If you would like to help, please contact: