“Cuba’s New Now” and the Ocean: Part I

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.

 Food Woes and Cascading Effects at Sea

 “Hunting down groceries in poorly stocked markets, like this butcher shop in central Havana, is a daily challenge. Cubans receive ration books that secure staples like rice, beans, and oil at low prices. But it’s not enough to live on.” pg 46, National Geographic, November 2012

Food security is a focal point of author Cynthia Gorney’s feature article – and of many conversations I’ve heard around Havana. In Africa, waning fisheries have been linked to cascading socio-ecological deterioration on land (the results proving just strange enough for a National Geographic TV series). Peer into Cuba’s protein-poor markets and imagine Africa’s situation, flipped.  Is the empty butcher shop in the article suggestive of creeping pressure on alternative protein sources? Surrounded by water, will Cubans increasingly turn to “from the left” fishing, unmanaged by Raul’s reach?  It’s unclear how much non-commercial fishing contributes to Cuba’s total landings managed through its 15 fishing associations (the Smithsonian has published Cuba’s commercial catch data in English). Already the UN reports that 87.6 % of Cuba’s fisheries in at a critical stage, with a 95% decrease of the region’s iconic Nassau Grouper.

While diving in Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, I saw few Nassau Grouper. I assume, from their catch, the men fishing from shore did too. They had speared a giant spotter eagle ray, something not uncommon for Mexicans but less traditional for Cubans. Not for sale, the ray was for la parilla  – the grill. “There’s a lot of meat in the wings,” the eldest explained.  This relative of the shark is protected in Florida; I watched it hacked in front of me feeling, surprisingly, little condemnation. My time in a discordant, enigmatic Cuba had fatigued the conservationist inside me.

All morning I had watched the youngest of the men appear at 50-foot depths. Unlike me, he was unaided by dive gear, only a spear in hand. The spear’s velocity echoed underwater. Pheeeww. Thud! The fish impaled that day were small and infrequent. The giant ray was a lucky pull, pedaled home to backyard grills on bicycles. Revisiting the images I snapped that day, I believe one conveys the same Cuban story of food insecurity captured in this month’s National Geographic. In print, a 1950s Chevy roars past the echoing Havana butcher shop. In mine, a hand-rolled cigarette dangles against the turquoise seascape that provides a meal untethered by ration cards.

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. 


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Meet the Author
Clare Fieseler is a National Geographic Grantee and National Geographic Creative photographer. She’s currently a Innovation Fellow at Conservation X Labs and is completing her PhD in Ecology at UNC Chapel Hill. Follow her @clarefieseler on Twitter Instagram.