It's a Small Ocean After All
By: Katie Thompson and Fernando Bretos
“The only thing that makes us different is our language,” Carlos Diaz, Director of Cuba’s National Center of Protected Areas, kept reiterating on our recent exchange trip to Seychelles. And it’s true. The island archipelagos of Seychelles and Cuba are more than 9,000 miles apart, yet traveling from Cuba to Seychelles, you feel as if you’ve landed in another Caribbean nation. The climate and laidback attitude of the locals are similar to what you would find in Cuba, as well as the white-sand beaches lined with palm trees and crystal-clear blue waters.
Cuba and Seychelles also have economies that rely heavily on tourism and marine resources. Cuba receives more than four million annual visitors and has protected more than 20% of the country’s area. Seychelles, an island nation of 90,000, receives three times its population in foreign tourists, and is one of the first island states to officially incorporate blue economy in many of its policies.
These parallels, along with the strong ongoing bilateral relationships between Cuba and Seychelles, led to the idea of an exchange between the two countries to share knowledge surrounding marine and natural resource management, particularly related to fisheries and protected areas. The exchange was funded by the Harte Charitable Foundation through our project “Advancing Recreational Fisheries Policy and Management in Cuba.”
Carrying out a bi-national, multi-institutional exchange
We began planning for the visit a year ago when CariMar Director Fernando Bretos went on a pilot visit to Seychelles to meet with key agencies and organizations. After many months of meetings, emailing, and phone calls, the exchange came to fruition from September 1-6, 2019.
Our delegation was made up of us from CariMar and three Cuban delegates: Carlos Diaz and Juliett Gonzalez of the Cuba’s National Center of Protected Areas and Abel Gonzalez of the National Center for Fisheries Inspections. After the 30-hour journey to Mahé, Seychelles, we were exhausted but eager to see the island. Seychelles is made of two island groups, the interior islands which are composed of granite and the outer groups which are coral based atolls. The granitic nature of Mahé makes for stunning vistas.
The five-day long exchange featured meetings with the Seychelles Ministry of Energy, Environment and Climate Change (MEECC) and the Seychelles Fisheries Authority (SFA). We met with the Seychelles Conservation and Climate Adaptation Trust, the Blue Economy Department, and The Nature Conservancy to learn about Seychelles’ debt-for-nature swap and the marine spatial planning and fisheries development activities that have come out of the swap. Finally, we learned from the Ministry of Tourism about how it is controlling coastal tourism development in Seychelles.
Key Themes: Sportfishing, Protected Areas, and Science Diplomacy
Through our meetings with SFA, we learned that sportfishing is a booming yet relatively new activity in Seychelles and that management of the industry could be improved. The Cubans also expressed a need for strengthened management of sportfishing in Cuba. Recently, both Cuba and Seychelles passed new fisheries legislation, making this an opportune time for the countries to exchange ideas about their laws’ implementation. The Cubans were impressed by SFA’s management and collection of sportfishing tournament data, while Seychelles sportfishing operators admired the Cuban model of reducing negative impacts of sportfishing by limiting access. They also were interested in creating a stakeholder group similar to Cuba’s National Sportfishing Working Group, created during the July 2019 meeting in Havana coordinated by Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, CariMar and The Ocean Foundation.
In addition to sportfishing, protected area management emerged as an important topic for both countries. We spent considerable time with Seychelles National Protected Areas (SNPA), whose Director, Selby Remy, was interested in learning from the Cubans how to manage forestry resources in protected areas and improve education and signage. Of interest to the Cubans were the financing mechanisms SNPA is using to operate the protected areas.
We also were lucky to meet with the Cuban Ambassador to Seychelles, Juán Humberto Macías Pino. We had driven by the Cuban Embassy many times that week and decided to stop and knock on the door one evening—we were received with open arms by the Ambassador and his wife. They showed us true Cuban hospitality with some strong, sweet Cuban coffee (something the Cuban delegation deeply missed while in Seychelles!).
The Ambassador told us the history of Seychelles-Cuba cooperation which began in the 1970s with military exchanges followed by medical cooperation that continues to this day. He mentioned that there are over 80 Cuban doctors stationed in Seychelles. Ambassador Macías was excited that this would be the first environmental cooperation between the countries.
The visit culminated with a meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that resulted in the drafting of the first ever agreement related to environmental conservation between these two island nations. Our last meal as a group was a typical Seychelles meal—with coconut curry, grilled fish, lentils, and banana flambé for dessert. It was the perfect way to end the week. We are grateful to the extremely generous Seychellois hospitality and thank MEECC for the time and effort that went into planning this successful exchange. We are excited about next steps and are currently planning a visit by a Seychellois delegation to Cuba next year.