Thawing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba is allowing researchers with Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota to expand their coral research and possibly improve the health of Florida’s coral reef tract.
Scientists with Mote Marine Laboratory travelled to Cuba in 2015 for a collaborative research effort with their colleagues at Cuba’s Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research, the University of Havana and other institutions to learn more about Cuba’s largely understudied coral reefs.
“Some of the coral species that we have real problems with in the Florida Keys like some of the Elkhorn corals and Staghorn corals that are listed as threatened under the endangered species act; some of these are doing really, really well in Cuba and we really want to know why,” said Mote Senior Scientist Kim Ritchie, Ph.D.
“Cuba coral reefs are kind of a black box of genetic information. So scientists have all of this genetic information on these coral species around the Caribbean, but they haven’t gotten the information from Cuban corals,” said Ritchie. “So, once we get some of that information we’ll be able to see where these healthy corals in Cuba are coming from and where are they going when they disperse their larvae.”
Ritchie says Cuba’s strong science-based environmental policies could play a factor in the health of coral there. About 20% of Cuba’s marine areas are set aside as protected areas. Ritchie was part of a diving expedition in February 2015 to observe pristine coral reefs in the Garden of the Queen region.
Those corals are adjacent to deeper water with a moving current making them less susceptible to the heat stress corals in the Florida Keys face. Healthy corals live in symbiosis with microorganisms like bacteria that produces antibiotics. “And one thing that we see in the Florida Keys is when the temperatures are higher, when there’s other stressors, a lot of these antibiotic beneficial bacteria association with the corals go away and they’re replace with pathogenic bacteria,” said Ritchie. Those conditions are largely responsible for coral bleaching.
Cuba’s corals also tend to be more remote and less accessible to anglers and divers.
Mote scientists are planning a return trip to the island later this year. Ritchie says hopes to get permission to bring back samples of Cuban coral to study microbes living on the coral surface and perhaps find clues for helping Florida’s coral.