* Cuban coast a major breeding ground for marine species
* Concern that Gulf current could carry oil to Cuba
* Cuba open to cooperation with U.S. against spill
By Jeff Franks
HAVANA, May 28 Red flags went up on beaches in
western Cuban this week, closing them briefly to swimmers amid
rumors that the BP oil spill in the U.S. part of the Gulf of
Mexico was forcing sharks into Cuban waters.
The government, through state-run press, quickly denounced
the rumors as false and the beaches were reopened, but the
incident reflected fears that the massive spill will reach Cuba
and wreak havoc on an island still relatively untouched by
modernity's environmental ills.
"Cuba, like all the countries in this area, is worried
about the situation in the Gulf," said Osmani Borrego
Fernandez, a director at the Guanahacabibes National Park at
Cuba's western tip.
So far, he said, there has been no evidence of the oil, but
"we are alert."
A trip along Cuba's coastline is like a trip back in time
where vast stretches of palm-fringed beaches sit undeveloped
and sea life abounds in the crystalline waters.
While rampant development and overfishing have damaged
coastlines and depleted seas around the world, communist-led
Cuba has been largely preserved by its slow economic pace.
As a result, scientists and environmentalists view Cuban
waters as a place where they can see how the world's oceans
were decades ago.
"Many areas along the coast, and thousands of small keys,
are in rural areas or are remote and have simply been left
alone," said Dan Whittle, senior attorney at the Environmental
"Ernest Hemingway set up a fish camp on Cayo Paraiso (about
90 miles (145 km) west of Havana) in the 1940s and the area has
not really changed since then. If he were still alive, he'd
still recognize it today," he said of the U.S. writer who lived
in Cuba for two decades.
COAST IN DANGER
Cuba's northwest coast is considered most in danger from
the oil. It is there that coral reefs, seagrass beds and
mangroves provide major breeding grounds for many fish and sea
creatures, including endangered migratory species like sea
turtles, sharks and manatees, Whittle said.
All that is at stake if the BP oil finds its way to Cuba.
It could also damage Cuba's tourism industry, which is centered
on beaches and to a lesser degree eco-tourism.
Tourism brought in more than $2 billion to Cuba last year,
or about 20 percent of Cuban's foreign exchange income.
The good news for Cuba is that the spill is still centered
about 300 miles (483 km) northwest of the island and BP may
finally be gaining control over the massive leak.
Officials for the oil giant said on Friday their so-called
"top kill" solution of plugging the gusher by pumping in
"drilling mud" was showing signs of success.
But even if that happens soon, Cuban officials are
concerned that the oil already in the water could be swept
south by gulf currents.
Cuba is separated from the Florida Keys by just 90 miles
(145 km) of water and despite their disparate political
histories, the United States and Cuba are inextricably linked
Another rumor that supposedly contributed to the Cuban
beach closures this week was that lionfish, which have venomous
spikes and have invaded Cuban waters in recent years from
Florida, were poisoning swimmers. The government said that
rumor also was false.
The United States and Cuba have been at odds since Fidel
Castro took power in a 1959 revolution, but they held talks
last week about the oil slick, officials said.
Cuba expert Wayne Smith at the Center for International
Policy think tank in Washington said he met with Cuban
authorities this week in Havana and that they are "fully open"
to cooperation with the Americans to stop the oil.
Standing in the way is the longstanding U.S. trade embargo
against Cuba, which prevents the use of much U.S. technology in
At a conference this week in Washington, oil experts and
environmentalists said it was time to allow cooperation with
Cuba in oil safety practices.
"We are not talking about a transfer of technology. All we
are asking is that, if there is an accident, the Cubans can
pick up the phone and call American experts who can bring
resources within 24 hours," said oil expert Jorge Pinon.
The issue is becoming a bigger one as Spanish oil giant
Repsol (REP.MC) REP.N prepares to drill for oil off Cuba's
ecologically rich northwest coast perhaps later this year. It
has contracted for use of an Italian-owned drilling rig now
being completed in China.
While the spill is a disaster, it might have one positive
result, Smith said.
"It actually could help improve (U.S.-Cuba) relations if we
cooperate in the right way and we have the right attitude," he
(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Washington;
Editing by Jane Sutton and Sandra Maler)