Cuba 2008

Bonefish Research in Cuba
Part of my job at Mote Marine Laboratory is Director of Operations and Research for the non-profit group Bonefish & Tarpon Unlimited.  The duties of this position are numerous, and one of these duties is to oversee, conduct, and determine the feasibility of research on bonefish and tarpon (and to a lesser extent permit). BTU has a science-based Research Framework that provides guidance on priorities for research and conservation. Top among these priorities are which species of bonefish are being caught (there are three species that can be caught on the flats), what are their growth rates (preliminary data indicates that Florida bonefish grow 2 to 3 times faster than bonefish in the Caribbean), and how many are there (we do not have population size information for any location except the Florida keys). As part of an effort to expand BTU’s bonefish research program, I’ve been speaking with scientists and lodge owners from around the Caribbean about either helping them out with their ongoing research or helping them to begin research projects. As part of this effort, I recently traveled to Cuba to meet with National Park biologists (who double as fishing guides) to get a first-hand look at their research programs and their fisheries for bonefish and tarpon.

I first became aware of the bonefish research in Cuba after receiving an email that contained a summary for presentations at the upcoming Third International Bonefish Tarpon Symposium. The email was from Vinola Valdes and Cotayo Cedeno, whose presentations were to be about the bonefish fishery and environmental education about bonefish and their habitats. We began a conversation about bonefish research via email, and after a few emails we began the paperwork necessary for me to travel to Cuba to observe their research program. After rescheduling twice because of hurricanes, I finally made it to Cuba in September, 2008.

Vinola and Cotayo are Specialists at Cienaga de Zapata National Park, on the south coast of Cuba, adjacent to the Bay of Pigs. They also double as fishing guides. Cienaga de Zapata National Park is a United Nations Biosphere reserve, and is managed for long-term conservation. The Park contains an ecosystem that is similar to the Florida Everglades in many ways, including habitats and freshwater flows. The bonefish fishery occurs on extensive flats, and tarpon are mostly caught within one or more rivers that empty into the ocean. Unlike the Florida Everglades, however, the Park habitats are nearly pristine – there is no pollution or flood control structures that impact fish and habitats. The only interruption of natural freshwater flows occurs along a road that transverses the Park, where freshwater flows are funneled through numerous under-road culverts.

The resources (bonefish and tarpon fisheries, birdwatching, ecotours) in the Park are managed for the long term, with management modeled to some extent on Costa Rica’s conservation plan.  The goal is to use strong ecotourism to sustain the Park. 

There are strict controls on fishing effort to ensure the fisheries stay high quality for the future.  For example, all of the guides who work in the Park are Park employees.  The flats area (Las Salinas) where the bonefish fishery is located is approximately 36 square miles. This does not include an area of equal or larger size that is not presently fished. There are plans to expand fishing into some of this additional area, perhaps in 2009.  No take is allowed in the fishing areas.  The fishery is managed for the long-term at a sustainable level. To the extent that some of the bonefish and tarpon larvae from fish spawned in Cuba may reach Florida’s shores, the management of the bonefish and tarpon fisheries in Cuba is a good thing.

Las Salinas is divided into 15 zones of roughly equal size. A maximum of six guides are allowed in a zone on a day, and no zone can be fished two days in a row.  Each boat is limited to one guide and one angler.  This ensures that the fish don’t receive too much pressure. Only fly fishing is allowed in the Park, and each guide records the number of bonefish caught-and-released, number of fish lost, and any fish that died. Based on catch data from The Bahamas, the goal of the Park is for anglers to average 10 bonefish per day during a typical 8 hour fishing day.  This program is run by Vinola, who has more than 10 years of data that allow him to monitor the health of the fishery.  In 2007, there were 855 total fishing days, and 5,016 bonefish hooked (average of 6 bonefish per fishing day).  Of course, some anglers caught many more than 10 bonefish per day, and other caught few or none, but the average is well within the catch target of 10 bonefish per day.

Starting in 2007, Vinola began tagging bonefish, but on a small scale. He and other guides have tagged 100 bonefish, and have already had one recapture. He is tagging bonefish to determine their movement patterns so they can better manage fishing effort in the zones.

The goal is to tag more than 2,000 bonefish, which will provide very good data on bonefish movements within and among the different fishing zones (and thus whether the zone strategy is effective) and even allow estimates of population size.  They do not yet have data on juveniles, bonefish diet, growth rates, or which species are in the fishery, all of which will be necessary components of long-term conservation, but hopefully those research projects are coming soon.

The Fisheries

I had the great fortune of sampling the bonefish fishery over two days in Las Salinas with (from left to right, I’m second from the left) Gilberto Artigas, Felix (Machito) Garcia, and Vinola Valdes (my host).

All are fishing guides for the Park, and all are excellent guides, casters, and anglers, and are good company. During two days of fishing, we tagged 28 bonefish. The largest fish was 22 inches Fork Length, and the average was 18 inches Fork Length.  The fishing was fantastic, with many singles, pairs, and small groups of hungry fish. The behavior of the fish, the number of fish, and the condition of the habitats all indicated that the conservation plan for the bonefish fishery is successful.

Each day began with a 30 minute car ride that started at Vinola’s house in Jaguey Grande, passed through a guarded gate, and down a long dirt road that traversed a peninsula of mangrove forest. Where the dirt road ended the flats started.  While loading the boats the first morning, a small school of bonefish tailed about 200 feet away.

The boats are approximately 10’ long, and are similar to flat-bottom, square-stern canoes. They are extremely shallow draft, which is essential in Las Salinas – 36 square miles of tailing-depth bonefish flats – a network of open sand, mangroves, and brown algae-covered limestone.  The boats had no engines, so locomotion was by pole only – black mangrove was the material of choice for a push pole. Vinola said it’s common for them to pole 12 miles a day.  Poling any watercraft 12 miles is not easy, but these boats moved through the water quite well with not too much effort (I poled a bit each day, and found the boats very nice to pole).

On the first day, we fished the morning in an area that received freshwater runoff, so the water was tannin stained. This made it hard to see the fish until the sun was high in the sky, but there were plenty of fish we did see. The first couple of fish I caught were going away – we saw the fish as they saw the boat, and I cast in the direction they swam.  It was immediately apparent that these fish don’t see a lot of anglers because most decent casts (and some casts that were not so decent) resulted in a strike.  The guides said that by the end of the winter fishing season, the fish are much more wary. But my guess is that what they think of as a wary fish is still quite aggressive in many other locations – during the offseason, even anglers who are poor casters will catch fish; during the peak season, a competent caster will still catch plenty of fish while the poor casters might catch just a couple fish per day.

In the afternoon of the first day, we moved into an area with less freshwater, and with the clearer water we spotted more fish and had more good shots. Through much of the first day, we were within sight of Pink Flamingos that were scattered across the mangrove flats in every direction. Although noisy, the flamingos were shy, and flew off if we got within a few hundred feet. We tagged 12 bonefish, and lost or released without tagging many more.

On Day Two, we headed in the opposite direction from Day One and again saw bonefish for most of the day.  Early on, after poling across knee-deep sand flats that were apparently fishless, Vinola poled into an expansive shallow flat studded with small red and black mangroves. Sure enough, bonefish were scattered throughout the flat. The challenge became following a hooked bonefish as it weaved through the mangroves. 

I caught the first two fish in a classic situation on this flat. In each instance, we could see a school of 4 or 5 fish slowly weaving through the mangroves. Vinola set us up so I had a cast into an open area among the mangroves. We waited for the fish, I cast into the open area as the fish approached, and caught a fish each time. It would’ve been nice to get photographs of the fish cruising through the mangroves, but I have no self control in those situations and left the camera in the bag.

Day Two was also when I caught my largest bonefish of the trip – 22” fork length (photo below).  Vinola was poling the boat about 60 feet off the edge of the mangrove flat. We spotted the bonefish slowly wander out from the mangroves, and turn left – against our direction of movement. I shot a quick cast to the fish. Although the cast was ahead of the fish, the fly was past the fish by about 3 feet. Rather than risk spooking the fish by stripping the fly toward it as it swam by, I waited until the fish passed and began slowly stripping in the fly to prepare for another cast. The bonefish whipped around and inhaled the fly. Amazing. The behavior of this fish, and of most other fish, combined with the types of flies that worked best, suggested that these bonefish eat a lot of fish. By the end of the day we’d tagged 16 bonefish and released untagged many more.

During the two days on the water in Las Salinas, I saw no sharks, and only a few barracuda. Vinola said that sharks are rare in Las Salinas, and the barracuda few and scattered. This is great for bonefish catch and release fishing – properly handled and with few predators, post-release survival should be near 100%.

We had a complete change of scenery on Day Three, when Vinola and I fished Rio Hatiguanico. It was a 30 minute ride downriver in an aluminum bass boat, first past flooded marsh reminiscent of the Everglades, then past mangrove forest with red mangroves that towered 30 – 40 feet overhead.  The water was dark with tannins, but clean.

As the river widened, Vinola slowed and began looking for rolling tarpon at bends in the river and where rivers joined.  It didn’t take long to find active fish – they looked to range from 5 to 15 pounds.  Vinola dropped the anchor to slow our drift (the current was very strong), and I began casting across the current and swimming the fly downstream on an intermediate line.  Within 5 minutes I’d missed a couple strikes and jumped a couple fish.  On one cast, as I stripped in the fly, I missed a strike, jumped a fish, and had another fish take the fly when it landed on the water. Amazing.

Vinola then took me on a tour up a narrowing river branch that fed into the main river. The further we went upstream, the more tunneled it became. At each widening in the river, where the current slowed slightly, we saw rolling tarpon, mostly in the 3 – 5 pound range.  In one wide spot, I saw 3 or 4 schools, each containing more than a dozen juvenile tarpon rolling energetically in unison. Vinola was disappointed – he said that there were usually many more tarpon here. Amazing. 

At one spot we nestled the boat among the mangrove roots and watched the small tarpon roll. There were no other sounds. Vinola said there was no development, no agriculture to pollute the water. The only activity had been decades ago when mangroves were harvested to make charcoal. That harvesting must have taken place away from the river – the mangroves along the river were enormous, and old.

Back on the river, the tide had changed to flood, and Vinola anchored the boat in mid-river where larger tarpon had started to roll. The largest rolling fish were approximately 80 pounds, with many 20 – 50 pound fish.  It appeared the tarpon were moving upstream from the ocean with the tide. Although the strong river current continued to carry water seaward, down near the bottom the tide was pushing ocean water upriver.

Again, cast cross-current and let the fly swing. The first tarpon to eat the fly came up from under the boat and took the fly as I was getting ready to make another cast.  Fortunately, it ran a bit before jumping.  After a lot of acrobatics, a 25 pounder was at the boat.  A few casts later, and another tarpon was on, this one around 30 pounds. A couple more fish and it was time to head back. Another excellent day.  Vinola said there is no tarpon research being conducted. I hope there is soon.

Fly Fishing Education
After all of the rescheduling to avoid hurricanes, my trip coincided with the second national Cuba fly fishing competition. Used as a vehicle for education, the competition attracted 26 participants from around Cuba.  Many participants were guides, but some were just hard-core anglers. 

>This education effort was great to see because education is an essential (but often overlooked or underappreciated) component to effective conservation and fisheries management.

Because fly fishing gear is hard to come by in Cuba, there was quite an array of rods and reels, and some participants had to borrow rods for the competition. As you might expect, there was a wide range of skills in casting and fishing, but I think that everyone in the competition learned a lot.

The competition included two days of fishing in Las Salinas, and one day of casting competition.  The 26 anglers (13 teams) were divided into two groups, and rotated fishing and casting days.

The casting competition included accuracy and distance events.  For accuracy, casters had to hit targets at different distances with the fly.

The distance competition was for maximum distance on both forward and backward casts.  In the final event of the casting competition, anglers had to cast the fly through a target (a wooden frame) at different distances, on both forward and backward casts.

On my final day in Jaguey Grande, I was treated to a very cool sight. We parked the car on the side of a dirt road on the outskirts of the neighborhood, and walked down a path that cut through a field of scattered brush. Suddenly the tall grass ended, and we were in an area where the grass had been cut short. And there were kids casting fly rods. Machito was there providing instruction. These kids, 8 – 10 years old, were casting better and farther than a lot of experienced fly anglers in the States.  I think six kids were casting on that afternoon, but Machito said he has at least 12 in his program. The goal of the program is to educate the kids about environmental conservation through fly fishing, and train the next generation of fly fishing guides at the same time. Laudable and impressive.

The shortcoming of the kids education program is that they don’t have enough rods, reels, and fly lines. This gear is tough enough for the guides to get, and kids being kids, rods get broken.