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US, Cuba sign first environmental accord since thaw

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Havana: The United States and Cuba signed an agreement today to join forces and protect the vast array of fish and corals they share as countries separated by just 140 kilometers (90 miles), the first environmental accord since announcing plans to renew diplomatic relations.

“We recognize we all share the same ocean and face the same challenges of understanding, managing, and conserving critical marine resources for future generations,” said Kathryn Sullivan, chief of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The memorandum signed by US and Cuban officials in Havana directs scientists with the Florida Keys and the Texas Flower Garden Banks national sanctuaries to collaborate with researchers at two similarly fragile and protected reserves: Guanahacabibes National Park and the Banco de San Antonio, located on the island’s westernmost region.

Ocean currents carry many of the same fish and organisms off the coast of Cuba into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, making collaboration on topics like preservation and sustainability an area of mutual interest for scientists in both countries.

“Fish, marine mammals, sea turtles, birds and other marine life exist in ecosystems that rarely fall within maps drawn by man,” said Jonathan Jarvis, director of the US National Park Service, which also signed the accord and will participate in the new exchange.

Washington and Havana announced last December that they would resume diplomatic ties, and formally did so in July.

Environmental cooperation has been one of the most visible areas of progress in the relationship as the United States and Cuba negotiate and discuss a number of issues.

They include much thornier matters on which the two countries remain far apart, such as the US embargo and the naval base at Guantanamo, as well as Cuba’s record on rights and democracy.

US Secretary of State John Kerry announced in October that the countries were working on a marine-preservation accord.

That same month, Cuba and the US-based Environmental Defense Fund unveiled an initiative designed to protect shark populations, record fishing vessel catches and develop a long-term conservation plan.

And in April, NOAA and Cuban scientists circled the island on a research cruise to study the larvae of bluefin tuna, a highly threatened and commercially valuable species.