USM scientists connect with Cuba over coastal research

Chet Rakocinski, a USM professor, had his slide presentation translated into Spanish for his talk to scientists in Cuba.
Chet Rakocinski, a USM professor, had his slide presentation translated into Spanish for his talk to scientists in Cuba. Courtesy Gulf Coast Research Laboratory

It’s been a year of making connections between South Mississippi and Cuba.

The latest group to visit was a team of scientists from University of Southern Mississippi and its Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

“We both share the Gulf of Mexico,” Jim Franks, a senior research scientist at GCRL, said of the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. He was the only one in the group from the Coast who had previously visited Cuba.

Last year USM invited four Cuban colleagues to South Mississippi, including the director of the Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research.

“They came, spent a week with us,” Franks said. “That was a good beginning of this relationship.”

In November, six Coast scientists traveled to the Cuban Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research (Centro de Investigaciones de Ecosistemas Costeros), an island on the northern side of the country that’s about an 8-hour drive from Havana. Each scientist presented a scientific paper on their research, and both groups shared research they hoped will benefit both countries.

Harriet Perry, senior research scientist and professor emeritus, spoke to the Cubans about the aquaculture of blue crabs.

“They were interested in that. They have the same blue crab that we have but they don’t eat them,” she said, and it could become a future industry for Cuba.

“All of those islands have their own special flavor,” she said. “It’s a big island,” she said of Cuba. “It’s got a lot of biodiversity.”

USM Professor Chet Rakocinski emails a Cuban scientist who visited South Mississippi year. She works at Garden of Queens, one of most pristine coral reefs in Cuba and the world.

One of Rakocinski’s graduate students translated his PowerPoint presentation into Spanish and also went to Cuba and presented her own paper. Virginia Fleer, a Ph.D. candidate at GCRL, won third place in the Mike deGruy Bays and Bayous Symposium Student Presentation for her research in oyster restoration in the Mississippi Sound.

South Mississippi has faced challenges with hurricanes and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The local scientists said they can work with the Cuban scientists to share information about how to react and recover, just as they share species. Billfish, tuna, large dolphins and tarpon swim between Cuba and the U.S., the scientists said.

Now the Caribbean, like the United States, is challenged by food security and the sustainability of fisheries.

Scientists from both countries are looking at the smaller organisms that live on the reefs. Pelagic Sargassum, a marine plant that lands on the beaches in the Caribbean, the Atlantic Ocean and South Mississippi, has never occurred in such high quantities as is being seen in the Caribbean, said Franks. He went out to the beach in Cuba to illustrate the issue with the floating brown algae.

Others who went on the trip to Cuba were Sara LeCroy, museum curator, and Donald Johnson, a senior research scientist.

Perry said she stood on the beach in Cuba and looked out over the Straits of Florida to the United States. Soon after she returned from Cuba, she went to Key West, Florida, and looked toward Cuba. It’s a relatively short distance, she said, which could be connected by science.