Scientists warn that unbridled farming could spell disaster for Cuba's coral reefs — and rare species like the goliath grouper.

Farming Could Spell Disaster for Cuba’s Coral Reefs

Last month, a 704-passenger cruise ship — the first to visit in almost forty years — pulled into Havana harbor, signaling a sea change in Cuba’s tourism industry. With the American embargo on the country lifting, droves of tourists will again be able to enjoy not just Cuba’s historic charm, but its abundant wildlands — including coral reefs that surround the archipelago.

And that has conservation scientists worried. The island nation is home to relatively pristine, Galapagos-like habitats like the Gardens of the Queen, a stunning coral reef teeming with rare species like the goliath grouper. And while policies that limit the impact of scuba diving, fishing and other activities are important, experts say that ensuring the long-term protection of Cuba’s coral reefs will come down to limiting the impact of another industry poised to flourish there: farming.

A Cuban coral reef.

Scientists warn that unbridled farming could spell disaster for Cuba’s coral reefs. (Visual by NOAA)

As the United States and Cuba normalize relations, agriculture on the main island is poised for drastic changes. In order to bolster food security and move towards self-sufficiency, Cuba wants to turn around its reliance on food imports, which currently account for 80 percent of its supply. Ensuring that agricultural growth is planned in a sustainable manner is a top priority among conservation scientists, and they hope it will be for the Cuban government, too.

In three weeks, scientists from the University of Florida and the Nature Conservancy, an advocacy group, will meet with Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture to discuss sustainable farming and limit the impact of agriculture on coral reefs. Research from the Caribbean has shown the two systems to be inextricably linked.

“The quality of the reefs can’t be separated from the land use,” said Luis Solórzano, executive director of The Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean program, who will be part of the envoy. “Tourism can concentrate in specific regions, but agriculture could be from north to south, east to west. That could have a much larger impact than tourism.”

Of primary concern to Solórzano is the unbridled growth of farming practices that release excess nutrients and agricultural runoff into surrounding ecosystems. In places like Barbados, Curaçao and Mexico, this kind of nutrient enrichment has been shown to disrupt coastal ecosystems and damage coral reefs.

The scientists meeting with Cuban officials hope to help minimize the country’s reliance on fertilizers and pesticides as it grows its agricultural sector. Their solutions include a patchwork of small- and medium-sized farms that integrate sustainable farming techniques with pesticide reduction tactics like integrated pest management. The opposite could be harmful, they say.

“If they revert to a monoculture system, that could be disastrous,” said Solórzano.

Pedro Sanchez, a professor at the University of Florida and former director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at the Earth Institute of Columbia University, agrees. “If [farming] is done the old-fashioned way, like when the Soviets were there, it will be an ecological disaster,” he said, referring to the monocultural system consisting of mostly sugar cane imposed by Cuba’s Cold War ally. “Too much fertilizer, too much water, too much pesticides. If it’s done poorly, it will damage the marine ecology.”

Sanchez, who was born in Cuba, will join Solórzano in three weeks for the meeting. He is optimistic that Cuba can grow its farming sector in a sustainable way. “We have learned the hard way in other countries,” he said. “But we know how to do it right.”