July’s lineup of Shark Week documentaries features an exploration of the toothy fish in the waters off Cuba, a relatively unstudied hotspot of shark biodiversity. The area has only recently been opened to a wide community of scientists because of a thaw in U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations. "Tiburones: The Sharks of Cuba," to be aired July 7 at 10 P.M. on the Discovery Channel, follows a joint team of U.S. and Cuban marine biologists. “Viewers will get to experience all our on-water and in-water activities with sharks, hear the scientists talk about the excitement of our collaboration and feel the drama as we work through challenges to accomplish our goals,” says Bob Hueter, a marine biologist at Mote Marine Laboratory, who appears in "Tiburones."
One of those goals is to protect the more than 100 species of sharks in the area from overfishing. “Fishing in Cuba is an important source of income, supports remote coastal communities and is critical for food security,” says Abel Valdivia, a marine biologist who was born in Cuba and majored in marine biology at the University of Havana and now works at the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation advocacy group. “But overfishing in Cuban waters is a major problem from commercial to recreational fisheries.”
Preventing the overfishing of sharks is a major part of Hueter’s research and outreach efforts. “The current fishery is not intensively targeting sharks but the catch is still significant,” Hueter says. “We have a collaboration with the University of Havana to study the sharks of Cuba, assess their status in Cuban waters, better understand Cuban fisheries for sharks and assist the Cubans in the development of a National Plan of Action for Sharks and Rays in Cuban waters.”
Cuba’s coastal habitats face many threats in addition to overfishing. Some of the nation’s coral reefs have long been praised by tourists as among the healthiest in the Caribbean. But according to Valdivia, they have suffered from pollution, habitat destruction, climate change and invasive species. “Coral cover across the island is low because the same problems that Caribbean corals face at the regional scale: warming that induces coral bleaching and disease prevalence that may be more related with warming than with pollution,” Valdivia says. “Mangrove forest and seagrass beds are generally in good shape but few studies have backed this up.”
Despite these threats, the marine environment around Cuba is more protected than it is in nearby areas such as Florida, according to Hueter. “Cuba has put nearly 20 percent of their coastal environment into marine protected areas, with more planned in the future,” he says. “That is a remarkably high percentage. And because of the lower pace of development in Cuba over the past 50 years, much of the shoreline is in a fairly natural state.”
One theme that recurs in "Tiburones" is how the recent warming of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba could have a positive effect on ocean science and conservation. Cuba’s marine science community is relatively small and, until the past several years, has been isolated as well. “Most research is published in national journals or Latin American journals with few scientists publishing in international prestige journals,” Valdivia says. “The marine research that is done in the island is still very descriptive. Few scientists are trying to answer hard-core ecology questions.” Cuban marine science is centered primarily at the University of Havana and government-run Institute of Oceanology. U.S. scientists and conservationists have been working with their Cuban counterparts for about a decade, but only on a small scale.
The diplomatic thaw has already started to increase collaboration between the two ocean science communities “The legacy of marine research is strong in Cuba, going back to the 1800s, and Cubans have great respect for the role and power of science,” Hueter says. “Their main challenges are lack of resources and isolation from their counterparts in the U.S. Through our work and that of others the second challenge is changing. And as more resources become available," he adds, "we will be able to elevate the level of science and conservation efforts in Cuba.”