MIAMI (WSVN) - As Cuba prepares for a spike in tourism, a group of the island nation’s scientists and government officials got a firsthand look at how the United States has been able to restore its sensitive underwater ecosystem.

The Cuban delegation, all of whom are guests of federal scientists and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, started the day on Monday with a briefing at the sanctuary. “The sanctuary is 9,800 square kilometers in size,” said Billy Causey, the sanctuary’s director.

The group then headed to Looe Key, a large protected reef off Big Pine Key. Once there, they got a close-up look at how tourism can have a negative impact on coral and fish populations. “That gives them a good understanding of what we’re dealing with, and they can see it,” said Causey.

The delegation is very interested in learning how overfishing and too many boats can damage coral and the creatures that call it home. “We’re seeing your experiences, and how you’ve managed tourism, and how you can conserve coral,” said Carlos Diaz Maza, the director of the National Center for Protected Areas in Cuba, through a translator. “We have the natural resources, with a very high level of conservation, because tourism never intervened.”

In the U.S., the move to protect reefs and fisheries was made after the damage from tourism was already evident.

Causey said he’s envious of Cuba’s current position. “They have the opportunity, from the ground floor, to start looking at the activities on their reefs and say, ‘We don’t want it to be like this,'” he said, “and they’re asking us the kinds of questions that I wish I could have asked someone 30 years, 40 years ago when we started with our program.”

But local sanctuary officials said there’s no doubt conservation efforts in Florida, like coral restoration programs, are working. “One other spot by Newfound Harbor, where we’ve planted 3,000 corals,” one official said.

The delegation’s second stop of the day was a coral nursery where hundreds of staghorn corals are being grown in about 30 feet of water. Cuba also has a coral nursery.

“The team is here to do the fundamental work of protecting marine life,” said Diaz Maza.

Since a fish in Key West could be on a reef off Havana within 24 hours, both governments realize how important it is to work together to protect the ocean. “This is a historic moment,” said Causey. “To have our Cuban colleagues here warms my heart personally, because we have worked a long time to get to this point.”

Last fall, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Center for Protected Areas in Cuba signed a sister sanctuary agreement.

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