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Saturday, December 7, 2013
Patricia Grogg interviews marine biologist ÁNGEL QUIRÓS
- To preserve the environment and adapt to climate change, alliances must be made with communities of local people with a view to educating, rather than dictating to them.
This is the maxim upheld by Ángel Quirós, a marine biologist and head of Los Caimanes National Park, a protected area that is economically and environmentally important for Cuba and the Caribbean.
“We support knowledge, sustainable alternatives and conservation. Working with the human settlements surrounding the park is a key aspect,” Quirós told IPS, describing his work strategy which also aims at adapting to the foreseeable impact of climate change on marine life.
Q: What is Los Caimanes National Park, and where is it located?
A: It is a marine area, nearly 300 square km in size, of which only 0.04 percent is above sea level. It is located in the centre-north of Cuba, and is among the most northerly territorial waters of the country.
Q: What is its environmental and economic importance for the country?
A: Its main attraction is the wealth of its biodiversity, seen in a variety of aspects. The Los Caimanes ecosystem is a spawning ground for five species of snapper (of the Lutjanidae family) and four species of grouper (of the Serranidae family), an extraordinary phenomenon in the Caribbean islands.
To be precise, in Los Caimanes we have mutton snapper (Lutjanus analis), cubera snapper (Lutjera cyanopterus), grey snapper (Lutjanus griseus), lane snapper (Lutjanus synagris), Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus), yellowfin grouper (Mycteroperca venenosa), tiger grouper (Mycteroperca tigris), red hind (Epinephelus guttatus) and dog snapper (Lutjanus jocu).
Q: These are not the only species found in the park. Are they the main focus of the protection efforts?
A: There are many other species, hundreds of them, but these are the best known because they are highly sought-after on the domestic and international markets.
They are reef fish with lean white meat, which are much preferred over oily fish. Therefore we have concentrated our attention on the groupers and snappers, because they are highly appreciated and are important commercial species.
In terms of protection they are what are known as “umbrella species”. In other words, when these species are protected, other species in the same habitat are protected too, as if they were under the protected species’ umbrella. It’s conservation jargon.
Q: What is the importance of Los Caimanes National Park to the Caribbean as a whole?
A: Protecting these species is important for the whole of the north coast of Cuba, because they disperse their larvae throughout this area, and even a bit beyond. It is possible that many of the groupers and snappers in the Bahamas and the U.S. state of Florida were spawned in Los Caimanes. That means we have an international scope that calls for greater responsibility and extra effort.
When the fish form aggregations for spawning, which they do at the same site and the same time each year, they are vulnerable prey. Fishing in these areas is common, but it is an unsustainable practice. Alternatives must be sought.
Q: What challenges does climate change pose for the protection and conservation strategies of Los Caimanes?
A: The rise in sea level is an enormous challenge for island nations. It is the most frequently discussed risk. But the increase in ocean temperatures is also worrying.
All species live within a given temperature range. There is a minimum and a maximum temperature they can tolerate.
Any change in the temperature range means that the species composition of the ecosystem changes. Some species may disappear from their usual habitat, while others may expand in numbers, causing serious harm to the stability of food chains. Reproductive processes are also associated with particular temperatures.
Ocean temperatures have indirect effects on marine animals too, because they affect other environmental factors, such as salinity or the concentration of gases dissolved in seawater.
Q: It would seem that there is still some uncertainty about how climate change will affect Los Caimanes.
A: Well, we have to find out what is going to happen to the Los Caimanes spawning ground. Will it retain allof its present species? Will some, or all, of its species disappear? Will they be replaced by others? What commercial value could the new species using the spawning ground have? And how much will be lost when the species we have now vanish?
No action can be taken in an ecosystem, or on a phenomenon like fish species distribution, if it is not known how these function. For now, we are aiming at more knowledge, sustainable alternatives and conservation. A key aspect of the strategy is working with the communities living around the marine park.
Q: How do you plan to involve local people?
A: All our national parks have very strict regulations on permitted uses. Practically nothing is allowed by law. If the problems of the surrounding communities can be solved, there will be less social and economic pressure on the park.
So at Los Caimanes, we are searching for alternatives in order to prevent poaching and depredation, and to promote conservation. The strategy also includes adaptation to climate change.
Q: What alternatives are being considered?
A: We estimate that over 50,000 people affect Los Caimanes, directly or indirectly. We began with sociological, environmental and economic studies of the area to identify the expectations of these coastal communities, and how they hope to meet them. They have a strong sense of belonging to the area they live in.
In January 2013 we will start a sponge cultivating project with fisherfolk and self-employed workers in Punta Alegre, a coastal town of nearly 7,000 people in the province of Ciego de Ávila, about 420 km from Havana. We will start with four two-person fishing crews.
Q: What is the expected production volume?
A: Some five tonnes annually. This is quite significant, given that the international price of sponges, depending on the variety, is from 30,000 to 50,000 dollars per tonne.
At present we are in the training phase, which includes raising ecological awareness and amassing theoretical and practical knowledge, for the appropriation of this alternative use of the Los Caimanes Park’s resources.
The project is supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme. If it is as successful as we hope, there will be a second phase with the installation of new farms and creation of land-based processing facilities so that local women can process the sponges and increase the added value.