Zapata Environmental Project
Filipe Rodriquez knows war. At 17, as a soldier in the Cuban army serving in Angola, he witnessed armed conflict first- hand. Today the 58 year old Cuban fishing guide is fighting another battle, one that is waged on two fronts, economic and environmental.
Filipe’s front line is the pristine flats, rivers and lagoons of the Zapata swamp. His weapons are fly rods and a fly tying bench. His troops, the young people of the pueblos of Playa Larga and Jaquey Grande.
Lying just two hours south of bustling Havana, the Zapata swamp, roughly twice the size of Florida’s Everglades is the largest preserve in the Caribbean. Each season multitudes of birders, naturalist and fishermen flock to experience its’ wild beauty. Playa Larga, the small pueblo resting on the palm lined beach of the Bay of Pigs welcomes in excess of 800,00 visitors per year.
Although a government owned beachfront resort caters to organized groups, many visitors find lodging and meals at the Casa Particulars on the beaches of Playa Larga and Playa Giron. Casa Particulars (Cuban B&B) and Palidars (private restaurants) are two of the fastest growing and most profitable businesses in Cuba’s private sector today.
From Playa Larga buses and private taxis transport fishermen, kayakers and birders into the vast expanses’ of Zapata and the fly fishing Mecca of Las Salines. Others journey down Rio Hatiquanico hoping to catch a glimpse of Cuban Black hawks, manatees or hook leaping tarpon.
2016 marked the expansion of angling opportunities in Zapata. Edridan charter company holds the recreational fishing rights to the vast shallow waters of La Salina and the winding spring fed Rio Hatiquanico. In addition, Edridan recently obtained the exclusive rights to the fresh water bass fishing of Treasure Lagoon and will begin full scale operations in October of 2018.
And, although environmentally friendly catch and release practices are adhered to by visiting fishermen, the park is in danger. Pressure to feed the tourist has created an epidemic in poaching of both fish and lobster inside Zapata’s boundaries. The lack of enforcement of park rules against netting and harvesting is primarily due to a shortage of funds for rangers and patrol boats.
Fishing guides act as the eyes and ears of the government but understandably are hesitant to report on neighbors and many times childhood friends violating fishing laws. After all, they understand and sympathize with a man attempting to feed his family, or purchase shoes for his children.
Filipe’s approach to solving the poaching problem is innovated. By educating the young sons, daughters, nephews and nieces of the fishermen in hopes the lessons bestowed on this new generation will trickle up. As he describes his goal, the passion for his natural setting is only overshadowed by his love of the children he instructs. With the patience of Joab and the persistence of Ahab, Filipe’s mission is dedicated to his charges, both human and nature.
After work, after school and on free weekends Filipe instructs the children in the art of fly casting. His youngest student is a five year old girl. Every lesson begins with a small lecture on the economic value of protecting Zapata’s fishing resource. Then using donated supplies including hair from the family dog, he instructs the older children in the intricate art of tying flies, a skill which also generates a small income stream.
The flies – which are specially tailored for the area – are sold to visiting anglers helping many of the families of the students. Supplies are scarce and Filipe’s resources are limited, but he uses all he can spare.
Joining the effort is Don Yoyi, owner of the only fly shop in Cuba, Los Morejones. Los Morejones is located on the northern border of the Zapata preserve and will provide a temporary home to the environmental classrooms and fly fishing school.
The Zapata Environmental Project is comprised of Professor Jeffery Boutwell (Latin American Working Group) Dan Whittle (Environmental defense Fund) and Patrick Hemingway (grandson of the famous writer). Also donating their time and expertise are Jay Sheldon and Kris Irwin (professors of marine studies U.G.A.) who joined by fellow marine scientist from Havana will establish water quality baselines, fish and bird counts and instruct students on monitoring the bio-health of Zapata. These team members are qualified and dedicated to this unique and innovative approach to battling just one of the many environmental challenges facing Cuba today, as well as assisting the young people of the area develop skills necessary for employment in the expanding private sector of Cuba.
We believe the Zapata preserve could become an example of how government, environmental groups and the private sector working together can help Cuba emerge as the premier eco-tourist destination of the Caribbean.