UA Researcher Studies Cuba’s Coastal Forests in Anticipation of Tourism Increase

From the July 2016 Desktop News With the 1960 trade embargo on Cuba expected to be weakened if not lifted—President Barack Obama called for the embargo’s end at his final State of the Union address—the large Caribbean island is preparing for an influx of American tourists.

There’s little doubt that a surge of U.S. tourists would benefit the island economically, but there is some concern about the potential impact that an inpouring of people would have on the island’s ecosystems.

In October 2015, Dr. Michael Steinberg, an associate professor in New College and the Department of Geography, visited the island as part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Cuba Initiative, now the University’s Cuba Center. Steinberg approached a Cuban park official, whom he had met two years earlier at a scientific conference, and suggested they partner to examine and map the coastal habitat of two of Cuba’s national parks—Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata and Jardines de la Reina Marine Park.

Steinberg had completed similar work in Belize and Florida’s Everglades National Park, and he wanted to conduct a similar study in Cuba using satellite images of the two parks from the past 20 years to determine the extent and health of coastal mangrove forests.

Mangroves are coastal trees that are found on the fringes—between land and water—of most tropical coastlines. They can survive a high level of salt water, and their stilt-like tangle of roots provide natural habitat for many species of aquatic fish, crabs, and shrimp. They also serve as winter homes for migratory birds and stabilize the coast from waves, tides, and storm surges. Without them, coastal erosion often occurs.

“Mangroves are a critical building block of a coastal ecosystem, both from a structural and ecological standpoint,” Steinberg said. “Remove the mangroves, and environmental degradation on various levels often ensues.”

Steinberg is working with Cuba’s Ministry of Fisheries, the National Park Association in Cuba, and geographer Reynaldo Estrada from the Nunez Foundation, making the study the first truly cooperative conservation-mapping project between Cuba and the United States since the embargo. At the end of the project, all maps and data will be shared with Cuban park and conservation officials so that their information can be incorporated into future park management plans.

Steinberg has been to Cuba twice since he and geography graduate student Jordan Cissell started working on the project. He hopes to take a third trip next fall.

“These national parks will likely be two of the most important destinations for sports fishing in Cuba,” Steinberg said. “They already draw some anglers, many from Europe, but as the embargo is lifted, there will be many more sports fishers from the United States who will come and fish here.

“It’s important to understand what the mangrove forest cover looks like now before tourists flood this area because there will, no doubt, be more development and more impact on these coastal areas. Future changes can then be measured and better understood based on our work.”

Steinberg said that understanding the past and present spatial dynamics of mangrove forest cover will also provide important baseline habitat information regarding the management of species such as the endangered Cuban crocodile, American flamingo, and the Antillean manatee. To this end, they’re also creating a map that identifies and delineates the range of various rare species that inhabit the parks.

“We’re using publicly available satellite imagery called Landsat to measure forest cover changes over the past 20 years,” said Cissell, who is using the project as his thesis for his master’s degree in geography. “We’ll look for deforestation and ask, ‘Are there no longer trees in an area that used to have mangroves?’ Dr. Estrada, from the Nunez Foundation, has also shared with us recently taken, high-resolution images of the parks that provide a great deal of detail.”

Steinberg said their hypothesis is to see more mangrove forests today than in the past. Shortly after the Cuban Revolution, the mangrove forests of Cuba became protected in national parks, but recent developments are threatening to cut down mangrove numbers.

“There have been reports of some mangrove die-offs in isolated areas of the Garden of the Queens, so we will examine and map that issue as well,” he said.

Steinberg said the research should be complete by May 2017.