A coral reef in Cuba isn’t just a tourist destination—it can be a lesson in effective ecosystem management.

I recently visited Cuba at the invitation of “The Ocean Doctor,” an NGO led by Dr. David Guggenheim, a marine scientist who has worked in Cuba over the past 14 years. The original intent of the trip was to attend a workshop with Cuban government officials and other experts. We hoped to discuss the potential economic benefits of expanding a no-fishing zone in Jardines de la Reina (the “Gardens of the Queen”), a coral reef and mangrove complex 60 miles off the country’s southern coast. But at the last minute, the Cuban Coast Guard denied the 10 Cuban participants’ permissions to join us in the Gardens, halting our plans.

But despite inauspicious beginnings, I continued my stay in Cuba, exploring the Gardens with Dr. Guggenheim, two marine philanthropists from the United States, and some local tourism experts. I was surprised and impressed with the diversity and health of the Gardens’ underwater world. It’s a region that offers great lessons—and hope—for coral reef ecosystems throughout the world.

A Bright Spot in the Caribbean

Like many regions, the Caribbean’s coral reefs face significant stress. According to WRI’s Reefs at Risk Revisited report, more than 75 percent of reefs in Caribbean waters are threatened, with more than 30 percent ranking in the “high” or “very high” threat category. While overfishing presents the most pervasive challenge, the region’s reefs also suffer from pollution and coastal development.

But this was far from the case at the Gardens. My great enlightenment was learning what a healthy, productive, and diverse ecosystem is at the heart of Jardines de la Reina. I dove and snorkeled, and witnessed with my own eyes healthy coral and large sharks. Compared to my previous experiences on coral reefs in the Caribbean, it was inspirational. The Gardens comprise a rare, healthy coral reef ecosystem, with top predators and large fish still present.

The Gardens have been spared much of the pressure that most Caribbean reefs are subject to, in part because of its geography. It is far from land – so it does not get much pollution from terrestrial sources. It has many mangroves, which help to filter the pollution that does make it out to the reef. And it has not had a lot of fishing pressure, owing to its distance from shore.

Forward-Thinking Reef Management

But it’s also clear that the region’s stakeholders have and are taking steps to ensure that the Gardens stay healthy.

In 1996, a large no-fishing zone was established in the Gardens. This was a collaboration between the Cuban government and Giuseppe (Pepe) Omegna, an Italian entrepreneur with an interest in establishing an eco-tourist hotel and a dive operation in the Gardens. In exchange for exclusive rights to be the dive operator in this area, Pepe’s company, Avalon Cuban Diving Centers, enforces fishing regulations. In addition, the number of visitors is strictly limited to 1,000 divers per year and 50 sport fishermen (for catch-and-release only). This unique arrangement has kept fishing and tourist pressure low in the area, and has allowed the coral reef and mangrove ecosystems to flourish.

Presently, the Gardens are struggling with invasive lionfish, a prolific, voracious species than can wipe out native fish populations. But the region is already taking some action to address this problem. During my visit, I attended some lionfish hunting patrols run by the Avalon dive resort. Staff catch and kill the invasive lionfish and feed them to the native sharks and groupers – essentially training these predators to begin eating lionfish. It is working. Tony, our dive guide (and a marine biologist by training), told a story of feeding lionfish to sharks near a coral that was completely overrun with lionfish. The sharks proceeded to eat all of the lionfish in that area. The patrols show that sharks and groupers are one of the few species that can control invasive lionfish.

Ensuring a Sustainable Future for Jardines de la Reina

Across the Caribbean, many marine protected areas are merely “paper parks” – they’re protected by law, but there’s no enforcement due to a lack of resources. Perhaps the model of the Gardens is one which should be considered elsewhere – a partnership between the government and a tourism operator with a vested interest in maintaining a healthy coral reef.

The region may also take sustainable management a step further. There is a proposal to expand the no-fishing zone within Jardines de la Reina, and the Cuban government would like information on the economic benefits. Cuban government officials and marine experts—including myself—are currently planning a workshop to discuss how to conduct an economic valuation of this proposed expansion. This valuation would attempt to quantify the economic benefits the expansion would provide through protecting ecosystem services.

Cuba’s reefs are not without their problems, but Jardines de la Reina does offer some powerful lessons in effective management. Through innovation and collaborative partnerships, other stakeholders around the world could take action to improve the health of their own reef ecosystems.

LEARN MORE: Check out the video below on Cuba's "Gardens of the Queen"