The United States and Cuba on Wednesday are set to reach their first accord on environmental protection since announcing plans to re-establish diplomatic relations, linking up marine sanctuaries in both countries to cooperate on preservation and research.
U.S. National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration chief Kathryn Sullivan arrived in Havana the previous day to sign the agreement and continue talks on a host of environmental issues common to the two countries, separated by just 90 miles (140 kilometers) of water.
Under the memorandum, scientists with the Florida Keys and the Texas Flower Garden Banks national sanctuaries will partner with counterparts at Cuba's Guanahacabibes National Park and the Banco de San Antonio, located on the island's westernmost region.
The four sanctuaries share a similar spectrum of fish and coral species, and officials hope the partnership will allow researchers to collaborate on how best to preserve their fragile ecosystems as tourism and oil exploration continue to expand.
"This opens the door to collaborating on many, many fronts so the so-called invisible lines of the Gulf [of Mexico] disappear,'' said Daniel Whittle, the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund's senior director for Cuba. "In my mind this is long overdue.''
Washington and Havana announced last December that they would resume diplomatic ties, and formally did so in July.
Environmental cooperation has been one of the most visible areas of progress in the relationship as the United States and Cuba negotiate and discuss a number of issues. They include much thornier matters on which the two countries remain far apart, such as the U.S. embargo and naval base at Guantanamo, as well as Cuba's record on rights and democracy.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in October that the countries were working on a marine-preservation accord. Also that month, Cuba and the EDF unveiled an initiative designed to protect shark populations, record fishing vessel catches and develop a long-term conservation plan. And in April, NOAA and Cuban scientists circled the island on a research cruise to study the larvae of Bluefin tuna, a highly threatened and commercially valuable species.
Cuba's marine ecosystem is considered one of the best preserved in the region, with large reserves of relatively untouched coral and large populations of fish, sharks and sea turtles. But such ecosystems could come under new threats as Cuba continues to search for offshore oil and tourism booms.
Billy Causey, a regional director with NOAA who helped broker the accord, said the pairings were determined in part by the challenges that the sanctuaries share.
Guanahacabibes National Park is one of Cuba's largest and most isolated reserves. Scientists there will be paired with researchers at the Florida Keys sanctuary, an area that receives more than 3 million visitors each year.
Researchers at Banco de San Antonio and Flower Garden Banks will study their similar deep-water ecosystems and share lessons on a range of issues including protection against oil and gas development.
"We have a lot that our scientists and managers can share back and forth,'' Causey said.
U.S. and Cuban scientists have long recognized the need for collaboration, as sharks and other species migrate through the waters off both countries.
Scientists from the U.S. and across the world are gathering this week in Havana for the 10th Congress on Marine Sciences to discuss climate change and conservation.