Cuban, American, and Mexican scientists meet in Sarasota to discuss BP disaster & science in the Gulf

09/28/10 Kate Bradshaw
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It’s been nearly fifty years since the start of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Most people can’t exactly catch a plane to Habana, but scientific study of the body of water the two countries share might help break the stalemate. In a room overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway at Sarasota’s Mote Marine Lab, Wayne Smith of the Center for International policy makes a compelling point.

The audience consists mostly of scientists from the U.S., Cuba, and Mexico. Smith says relations have been so bad that the U.S. government spurned Cuba’s offer to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

This is the first time the Trinational Initiative has met in the United States. The group’s aim is to share research on one very big thing that Mexico, the U.S., and Cuba have in common: the Gulf of Mexico. Since 2007 the consortium has held conferences in Mexico and Cuba, but Environmental Defense Fund lawyer Daniel Whittle says holding one Stateside had until now proved challenging.

He says things have gotten a little easier in recent years, but relations between the US and Cuba aren’t where they should be, given that the Cold War ended nearly a generation ago.

Whittle says the BP oil disaster starkly demonstrates the need for collaboration among the three countries.

He adds that the spill shows there’s another reason to start talking to Cuba, which may start producing oil in less than a year.

Larry McKinney of Corpus Christi-based Harte Research Institute said Cuba could learn from two countries that have experienced major oil spills as a result of drilling in the Gulf.

Luis Barreras, a scientist with Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment, probably would not have been able to participate in this week’s consortium if this were 2007. Speaking through interpreter Fernando Trelles, a researcher at the Miami Beach-based Ocean Foundation, Barreras says relations between the two countries are so-so when it comes to research.

Environmental Defense Fund lawyer Dan Whittle says that while the stalemate between Cuba and the U.S. has softened since the start of the Obama administration, there’s a long way to go. He adds that Florida, especially the Tampa Bay area, could play a key role in opening up dialogue between the two nations.

Cuba’s Barerras adds that he thinks there needs to be more direct collaboration between governments, not just among NGOs like research institutions. Bill Kiene, scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says today that his agency is willing to start working with all interested parties on gulf research, including Cuba.

How such a partnership would look has yet to be seen. The Trinational Initiative meets again tomorrow, when it will discuss climate change as well as research and conservation of sea turtles, sharks, coral reefs, and dolphins. Meanwhile, a Justice Department official says no settlement talks are taking place between the Obama administration and BP over fines stemming from the BP disaster.

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