Cuba – Gardens of the Queen: The Last Stand for Caribbean Reef Systems

By Shawn Heinrichs, Safina Center Fellow
An American crocodile waits motionless in the mangroves of Gardens of the Queen
I remember as a young child, driving down with my family to Florida to snorkel the reefs of the Florida Keys coral cay archipelago. We would start at Key Biscayne just below Miami, and work our way down through Key Largo and a dozen other keys, ending our journey in Key West, the southern most point in the continental United States.
Spending countless-hours each day exploring in the sea, even as a child I was struck by vibrant colors and intricate structures of what seemed like endless stands of healthy coral reefs, and also by the sheer volume and diversity of fish species that made their homes in these reefs. I remember swimming alongside huge southern stingrays as they cruised across the shallow sea grass beds, dodging countless conches and starfish scattered on the ocean floor. I remember swimming out over the reef walls to intercept eagle rays and reef sharks patrolling in the blue, only to come face-to-face with massive barracudas glaring at me with their intimidating jaws full of razor-sharp teeth! And I remember fish, lots of fish of all kinds, including huge groupers, massive schools of grunts, pork fish, parrot fish, surgeon fish and enormous tarpon, flashing their silvery scales as they turned and drifted into the abyss. It was a magical place and a special time that fueled my childhood passion for the oceans.
A large black grouper and schools of pork fish make there home in Gardens of the Queen A southern stingray glides across the sea floor in Gardens of the Queen
As the years passed, we periodically made pilgrimages back to the Florida Keys, but things were changing. The once-vibrant reefs turned grey, algae took hold, and the reef structures collapsed. The clear blue waters became muddied, and silt further choked the corals. The large groupers, sharks and rays disappeared, and the massive schools of fish dwindled into a shadow of their former numbers. And as the reefs died, so did my childhood joy while exploring them. We eventually stopped visiting the keys. Sadly, this tragic story has played out again and again across the entire Caribbean, with the latest estimates placing the coral reef loss across Caribbean at greater than 80% over the past few decades (Catlin Scientific Survey). After decades of severe reef degradation and intensive overfishing, for most us who experienced these once thriving reefs, the memories have faded, and for the younger generations there is no prior reference at all. And as happens all too often, the baseline has shifted, and the current depleted and overfished condition of Caribbean reefs has become the new norm.
A school of tarpon takes shelter under a reef overhang in Gardens of the Queen A group of silky sharks patrol the surface waters in Gardens of the Queen
If we aspire to restore the health of Caribbean reefs and rebuild the fish populations, we cannot look to the current condition of most of its reefs as a reasonable reference point. Instead we must consider what these reefs looked like before they were so degraded, choked in algae, and stripped of all large predators and most commercially-valuable fish species. We must remind our communities of what a healthy and thriving Caribbean reef system actually looks like, and inspire them through imagery and storytelling, that such reefs exist even today within Caribbean. It was with this objective in mind that I made my first journey to Cuba.
Read the full story, originally published to National Geographic’s Ocean Views blog on August 21, 2017.

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