Winter term course with marine ecologist brings students to Cuba

University of Maine Professor of Marine Sciences Robert Steneck and four USM marine science students spent their winter break sailing to Cuba for a winter term course.

The course, Navigating Change in Cuba: Sustainable Maritime Environments and Tourism Development, addresses the growing tourism industry in Cuba which has been fueled by the reopening of Cuban-American diplomatic relations.

When the Obama administration reopened diplomatic ties with Cuba on July 20, 2015, it took a step towards a boom in Cuban tourism. Along with the end of the Cuban-American cold war, the Castro administration began allowing American cruise ships to sail to Cuba.

For 54 years, there were no official American tourists on the beaches of Cuba and few large sea vessels on the coast. Until recently, the lack of human impact has offered protection to the coral reefs off Cuba’s coast. Now, with investors’ money and vacationers pouring in, Steneck searches for the best management practices to protect the reefs. “From a marine science perspective, coastal zones are particularly at risk,” Steneck said. “What would you do if it was up to you to develop this, make a profit, and protect the environment?”

That’s the question the four marine science students tried to answer during their 20-day expedition on the Harvey Gamage, a 131-foot-tall schooner ship built in 1973 and restored in 2015. The students experienced what Steneck calls “experiential learning”; they dove at pristine coral reefs, learned about Cuba by speaking to locals and developed models for environmentally sustainable tourism.

The class snorkeled at the Jardines de la Reina, a system of reefs, cays and inlets that stretches 74 kilometers across the mouth of the Gulf of Ana Maria, located on the southside of the island.

Steneck’s studies may help protect reefs like the Jardines de la Reina from tourism related damage such as that suffered by the reefs off the Yucatan coast. The reefs were damaged from a series of hurricanes in the early 2000s, but the GEF/World Bank MBRS Initiative named development and tourism as the top risks to the region’s reefs.

These human damages can occur when the hull or anchor of a ship strikes a reef. Dredging, or the removal of sediment from the ocean floor, is damaging to reefs. The practice of trawling involves dragging a large net across the ocean floor and also damages reefs. Ships might strike reefs or drop anchors on them.

USM Tourism and Hospitality Professor, Tracy Michaud Stutzman, also provided insights during the course. Stutzman, who has a doctorate in archeology/anthropology, served on the Maine Governor’s Council for the Creative Economy, the Governor’s Council on Quality of Place and marketed businesses through her company, the Maine Highlands Guild.

Dr. Robert Steneck is a professor at the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences with over 40 years of professional experience. He is an avid diver since the 1960’s, who received his Ph.D from John Hopkins University. He works in field sites in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Maine.

Steneck works out of the Darling Marine Center, a 170-acre UMaine facility in Walpole, Maine, which offers waterfront access to Marine Science students. The Darling Marine Center was founded in 1965; it was donated by Ira C. Darling. Undergraduate students may attend the Darling Marine Center’s Semester by the Sea program for unique research opportunities.

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