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“Cuba’s New Now” and the Oceans: Part II

The tourist's view from a government-run restaurant near Playa Larga, Cuba. Photo credit: Clare Fieseler

Sharks…deep-water rigs…coastal development…fish for tourists…empty markets. 

As someone who studies the ocean, these are the words that pop out at me when reading National Geographic’s November cover story “Cuba’s New Now.”  Paolo Pellegrin’s images reveal poignant photos of weary faces and urban crowds, but the ocean is generally an unseen character in the drama. Still, when reading the article, you don’t need to be a marine biologist to sense that the ocean is inseparable from the modern Cuban narrative.

In this blog series, I’ve selected images that add some illustration to ocean issues mentioned in the article. Some photos are my own, others captured by colleagues. All deal with the critical role of the ocean that surrounds an island teetering between isolation and globalization.

Now, my grasp of the Cuban experience is not first-hand. I share these photos as a witness to ocean change across the Caribbean. By good fortune, I’ve been a recent explorer of Cuba’s coastline. Before visiting Cuba for research, I had romanticized about a people and an environment trapped in time. My intent is that these photos and insights convey the opposite: this patch of ocean is dynamic, so are its users.  Cuba’s waters pulse with bounty, danger, and hope while its people continually give and take from these waters to adapt for tomorrow.

When traveling in Cuba, should you order the lobster? Well, it depends. 

“There is a term  Cuban house wives use as they make their rounds in search of the day’s family food: pollo por pescado. It means, ‘chicken for fish’: You have promised fish for dinner but in the store there is no fish, so you get a little chicken and pretend its fish. Where is all the fish? Ah, any Cuban will tell you… The fish is in the restaurants. The fish is in the hotel buffets, a popular amenity of tourists where long counters are piled high…” pg. 50, National Geographic, November 2012

 Whether in a coastal village or a colorful Castro-fied restaurant, I found plenty of seafood when traveling in Cuba. That’s easy for any tourist. The real challenge for me was matching my plate with my moral compass.

Near the sleepy village of Playa Larga, there’s a government-run restaurant that targets tourists peering into one of Cuba’s blue holes. It peddles lobster almost as hard as Che Guevara t-shirts.  The waiter really pushed the local surf-n-turf special on me: farm-raised American crocodile and lobster tail. My colleague and I were on research budgets; we reluctantly split it. We faked interest in a FIFA game, gobbled grub, and soaked in the lush, canopied setting between dives. We paid the check with raised eyebrows, realizing we had eaten for 1/4 the price elsewhere. About forty Canadians began bustling towards the shaded tables with a Cuban minder. These tourists were about to dine a stone’s throw from the turquoise sea, over looking an underwater cave, en route to visit the Caribbean’s largest wetland. They almost all ordered, you guessed it, the pricey lobster and crocodile special. I couldn’t blame them; the food matched the ambiance. Isn’t this why they came to Cuba in the first place?

This thought crossed my mind: should the seafood-seeking tourist be celebrated? Under Raul’s new order of business tolerance, ordering seafood from a mom-and-pop shop could, in theory, funnel money more directly to fishermen. Think about it: for the first time in decades, Cuba’s mindful traveler can avoid the government middle-man and distribute tourism dollars to private, small business owners (who’s average monthly salary from the government would otherwise be about $20).

The fishing docks of Playa Larga, a small coastal village sitting on Cuba's Bay of Pigs. Photo credit: Abel Valdivia

Fancying ourselves mindful, my colleague and I mostly avoided the government-run tourist hubs, preferring to spending our CUCs (the Cuban currency for foreigners) at B&B-style casas particulares along the coast.  That’s how we ended up in sleepy Playa Larga (see image above). Our entrepreneurial hosts served us lobster tail every night, if we wanted, for less than $4.00USD a meal.  Surely, I thought, with over thirty pastel canoes tethered just yards from the B&B, the local fishers of Playa Larga must be benefitting from the up start of lobster-seeking B&Bs in town.

Wasn’t my lobster-hungry, sustainably-traveling tummy contributing to the sleepy Playa Larga economy? Or, as this month’s article suggests, was my appetite stealing from Cubans’ plates? And, important for my environmental ethic, how does this all trickle back to help sustain the ocean?

Once you consider the percolating force of Cuba’s black market, tracing the web of sustainable tourism gets sticky.

It turns out that the lobster I was eating at the B&B was purchased on the black market. It had to have been. A Cuban friend of mine highlights in her 2009 masters research:

 In Cuba, 90% of the lobster is exported to the international market and the other 10% is sent to the government-controlled tourism sector (Puga & de León, 2003). Therefore, there is no lobster supplied to the local market. This creates a high internal demand for the lobster on the black market, despite private and recreational lobster fisheries [being] total prohibited.

My friend clarifies that, since 2009, some lobster is now being sold from government-run store fronts, like in Central Havana. But when traveling along Cuba’s Southern coast, I saw no government seafood outfitters; they’ll likely rare outside of urban areas. Meaning: the fishery that got lobster on my non-government-controlled tourism plate operates completely under the radar, completely unmanaged. Which is the last thing Cuban lobsters need. The fishery collapsed in 1990, with the government since scrambling to improve management with scant resources. What my plate took from the ocean went un-accounted and, if anything, contributed to the fishery’s consistently declining landings since 1990.

Upon returning from Cuba, I was still bothered by this moral fog where seafood and small-scale tourism meet. I read some research papers on Cuba’s spiny lobster fishery and found some illuminating facts for the lobster-eating traveler:

  •  Fines for illegal lobster take are in Cuban Pesos (the local currency) but most illegal fishers get paid in the much higher valued CUC (the foreign-based currency). So there is little economic incentive to stop illegal harvest even when caught.
  •  During March 2009, the price of a lobster tail in the black market was about CUC12 $2 or USD $2.16. While the restaurant prices vary between USD $20-$35.13. In other words, even when tourists can afford eating lobster at legal high prices illegal options are attractive at 1/10 the price.
  • The number of spiny lobsters illegally taken might not be as significant as those taken by the Cuba’s commercial lobster fleet. Their composition, however, may encompass sub-legal size lobsters and females carrying eggs – which undermines management.

With all that in mind, should I order lobster the next time I’m in Cuba? Now — as a conservation-leaning biologist, I support Cuba’s efforts to rebuild its fisheries through monitoring, management, and fisherman compliance. As a conscious traveler, I support  small business owners that boost local economies. I’d rather avoid the $30.00 tail in the Havanna high-rise. My experience in Cuba highlights the growing pains of a burgeoning business sector and antiquated fisheries policies. Then again, the growing pains of governance seems a common theme in this month’s NGM article — and most of the articles I’ve read about Cuba this year.

At the moment, I see no clear answers for my moral compass. The next time I’m exploring Cuba’s coast, I’ll play it safe: chicken, please.

The oceanfront Cohiba Melia high-rise hotel, co-owned by the Cuban government and a Spanish corporation, is one of the few places in Havana where tourists can pick up Wifi while downing mojitos and lobster. Photo credit: Clare Fieseler

Clare Fieseler is a National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee and PhD student in ecology at UNC-Chapel Hill. She’s conducted fieldwork along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef for four years. In June 2012, she visited Cuba for the first time with other researchers from UNC. Read more about UNC research on Cuban reefs at www.theseamonster.net. Follow Clare on Twitter.