The marine life in the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean has drawn interest from travelers for centuries, from European explorers to modern SCUBA enthusiasts. However, there are few large marine reserves in this region. One notable exception is the “Jardines de la Reina” (Gardens of the Queen) reserve off the southern coast of Cuba. This no-take marine reserve, the largest in the region, was set aside in 1996 to protect the seagrasses, mangroves, and coral reefs that typify this island destination. It remains one of the most pristine places left in the Caribbean.
An international group of scientists from Cuba, Mexico, and the US used SCUBA to survey populations of large targeted species at varying distances from the core of the reserve. The Jardines reserve is designated as no-take, however enforcement is most effective at the center of the reserve and poaching increases towards the reserve border. This gradient provides an opportunity to test how large reef fishes respond to varying levels of fishing pressure.
Fishermen launching from southern Cuba rely on these waters for snapper, grouper and grunt, all highly prized commercially important species in the Caribbean region. Of the many species studied, those commonly targeted by fishermen (including mutton snapper, black grouper, hogfish, cubera snapper, schoolmaster, and yellow grouper) were far more plentiful in Jardines than the fished areas. In fact, mutton snapper were twice as dense inside the reserve. These increases were even more dramatic when comparing only the shallow reef crest- here mutton snapper were 8 times more abundant than in the unprotected area.
Scientists studied a whole range of factors to tease apart whether these observed differences were actually due to protection. They concluded that protection by the Jardines reserve was responsible, rather than differences in habitat, pre-reserve levels of fishing, or behavior towards the SCUBA divers. Another piece of the puzzle pointing to an MPA effect is that fish numbers dropped off, with increasing distance from the MPA. Fishes were more abundant inside and close to the protected area, and divers saw a gradual decrease in fish as they moved farther away from the MPA. This points squarely at protection as the primary cause of the high levels of fish seen in the Jardines reserve.
Jardines highlights how large reserves can provide important benefits for targeted fish species, especially when multiple habitats (such as the reef crest and slope) are protected. This reserve is known by divers as the “Galapagos of the Caribbean” due to its wild beauty and the rich marine life it contains. Given the high fishing pressure that has engulfed most of the Caribbean, this massive refuge offers visitors a unique look into the past and a glimpse of the future.
To Learn More: Pina-Amargós, F., G. González-Sasón, F. Martín-Blanco, and A. Valdivia. 2014. Evidence for protection of targeted reef fish on the largest marine reserve in the Caribbean. Peer J 2:e274;DOI 10.7717/peerj.274. (1.7M PDF file)
Cuba “Hope Spot” Video by Kip Evans Photography