map of cuban waters

Cuba has 3,735 miles of coastline. This is more than any other island in the Caribbean. It has 7,848 sq. kilometers of species-rich mangrove swamp and its inland waters contain 22 or more endemic species of fresh and brackish water fish. Much of its coastline is surrounded by smaller islands and lagoons within large, relatively unspoiled coral reefs, which due to environmental degradation are a quickly vanishing source of biodiversity in the whole Caribbean Sea. A mixture of cultural, political and economic factors have contributed to preserve this important living resource, yet it has been only a temporary reprieve. The same global human forces that have ravaged the oceans and reefs in the rest of the Caribbean are splashing down in the coastal waters of the Cuban islands. Efforts to study this system before it is gone, and to fight to preserve what is left are definitely underway, but while they may help to protect some of these complex ecosystems it is certain that much of this biodiversity will soon be lost. This web page is designed to be an introduction to this last well- preserved ecosystem which once covered the whole Caribbean. Enjoy!

The Great Zapata Swamp

The lovely and spotted Caribbean Crocodile, Croccodilus rhombiffer
At 1,116,440 acres the Zapata Swamp is one of the most important, naturally preserved wetlands in the world. This wilderness not only functions as a wetland but contains 14% of Cuba's natural forest, which makes it one of the Caribbean's largest forests as well. It is an important home and breeding ground to many birds and rare species of animal and ocean life, including the West Indian Manatee and the increasingly endangered Cuban crocodile.

Click the photo at right for an interesting yet rigorously scientific paper on Zapata (pdf file).

Cuban Reefs

fish and car
Like all Cubans, reef fish love old American cars!
Cuban waters contain 3020 sq. km of reefs. After the Bahamas, this is the second largest reef area in the Caribbean. The Caribbean reefs as a whole are a unique ecosystem with endemic species found nowhere else in the world. But the reefs of the Caribbean have been vanishing even more quickly then reefs elsewhere. There are many theories about why this is happening: some blame it on rising water temperature; an increase in organic matter being washed out from nearby rivers due to the use of fertilizers; more aggressive deeper fishing with more destructive fishing techniques; and the recent proliferation of cruise ships and increased tourism on the reefs themselves. Scientists have recently discovered that many of the most rapidly vanishing reefs are infected with a bacteria that comes from raw human sewage. They blame the cruise ships for their practice of dumping their sewage tanks directly into the reefs' waters.

Click here for important information on Cuban reefs and mangroves
Click below for lots of pictures of Cuban reefs epinephelus itajara
While 20 of the 24 nations of the Caribbean have more than 90% of their reef listed as threatened (see the reefwatch), Cuba has only 46% in this condition. By looking at the suspected causes of reef loss listed above, one can make some guesses as to why. Cuba's commitment to sustainable agriculture results in much less organic matter being washed down into the reefs. Their more primitive fisheries technologies do not allow them to harvest the oceans at such an alarming rate, and the U.S. led ban on tourism to Cuba has vastly decreased the number of cruise ships frequenting its waters. The higher than average commitment of Cuba to maintain its biodiversity also seems to have paid off. They already have several MPAs (Marine Protected Areas) and studies of enforcement have shown that Cuba not only sets these areas aside but has consistently policed them to prevent violations. Yet these reefs are increasingly threatened. Already there are plans for a unique US investment to upgrade Cuba's fishing fleet, allowing it to have a greater impact on the reefs by further over-fishing the Caribbean.

Hippocampus Reidi
Hippocampus reidi

The Wonderfully Diverse Cuban Fish

caranx latus
The yellowtail snapper (Caranx latus), an important fish for the Cuban people
carangaides barthommoei
Carangaides barthomomei, another important fish to feed the Cuban people

Click above for National Geographic images of Cuban reef fish
spotted ray
The spotted ray (Aetobatus narinari) trying to swim away


Cuba has shown its love of its marine fish with a collection of 60 fish stamps. Click below to see them all


Other, Less Thought of, Cuban Sea Life


Annularia euglyptamollusca
Click for some Cuban mollusca (Annularia euglyptamollusca)

Efforts are underway to save this vestige of Caribbean biodiversity.
Click here to read about some and even volunteer your help.

environmental defense fund

Below are more valuable links to Cuban Biodiversity:

United Nations Program on the Caribbean
Page, photos and links about Cayo Lago
Gulfbase site about the Gulf of Mexico
Background on Caribbean fishes
Endangered Caribbean fishes
Cuba photos for sale
Environmental Defense Fund proposes new Marine Restricted Areas in Cuban waters (pdf file)

Page designed by David Connelly
last updated 2/25/05

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