The United States and Cuba 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.
US National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration chief Kathryn Sullivan is in Havana to sign the agreement on Wednesday and continue talks on a host of environmental issues common to the two countries, separated by just 90 miles (140km) of water.
Under the memorandum, scientists with the Florida Keys and the Texas Flower Garden Banks national sanctuaries will partner with counterparts at Cubaâ€™s Guanahacabibes national park and the Banco de San Antonio, located on the islandâ€™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.
â€œThis opens the door to collaborating on many, many fronts so the so-called invisible lines of the Gulf (of Mexico) disappear,â€ said Daniel Whittle, the US-based Environmental Defense Fundâ€™s senior director for Cuba. â€œIn my mind this is long overdue.â€
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 US embargo and the naval base at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, as well as Cubaâ€™s record on rights and democracy.
US 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.
Cubaâ€™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 Cubaâ€™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.
â€œWe have a lot that our scientists and managers can share back and forth,â€ Causey said.
US 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 US and across the world are gathering this week in Havana for the 10th Ocean Sciences Conference to discuss climate change and conservation.