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U.S, Cuban scientists plan joint Gulf research

* U.S., Cuban, Mexican scientists plan joint Gulf research

* Assumes continued improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations

HAVANA, Oct 27 (Reuters) - U.S., Cuban and Mexican scientists have drawn up plans for joint research in the Gulf of Mexico, in another sign of improvement in long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations.

In a meeting in Havana this week, they agreed on top priorities for collecting information about the Gulf, a body of water shared by the three countries but about which little cooperative research has been done in recent years.

“This is a logical, low-risk area in which to begin discussions with Cuba. It is without question in our mutual interest to to share science and ideas on our shared resources like the Gulf of Mexico,” Environmental Defense Fund senior attorney Dan Whittle said on Tuesday.

Whittle was among 30 Americans, 30 Cubans and six Mexicans at the meeting, held on Sunday and Monday ahead of an international meeting on ocean science this week in the Cuban capital.

“We’re starting now to enter a new era of collaboration,” said meeting organizer David Guggenheim, marine scientist and head of Washington-based advocacy group 1planet1ocean.

The plan assumes that U.S.-Cuba relations will continue to get better under President Barack Obama, who has said he wants to end five decades of bitterness between the two countries separated by just 90 miles (145 km) of ocean.

He has initiated talks on migration and resumption of postal service with Cuba and allowed Cuban Americans to travel and send money freely to their homeland.

But a general travel ban to Cuba for most Americans remains in effect, as does the United States’ 47-year-long trade embargo against the communist-led island.

There are also restrictions on travel of U.S. and Cuban academics between the two countries, although it has gotten easier under Obama to obtain permission, Guggenheim said.

Whittle said Obama needs to eliminate all obstacles for scientists to assure a “free flow of information” between the countries.

The plan of action calls for shared projects to track marine animals and to study such things as the effects of pollutants and climate change on coral reefs.

Cuba has leased out much of its offshore area for oil exploration, which when it begins will bring danger of oil spills that computer models show would flow north to Florida.

“We need a dialogue to talk about coordinated emergency response. Everything points to the need for collaboration and communication, not continuation of a Cold War policy,” Guggenheim said. (Editing by Eric Walsh)