Ruskin fisherman works to preserve Cuba’s environment
Paul Guzzo, Times Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 15, 2016 6:00am
Ruskin’s Phil Thompson is helping to start a program in Cuba focused on teaching skills needed to protect nature and earn a living through eco-tourism to children living around the island’s Zapata Swamp National Park
TAMPA — Phil Thompson has cast enough fishing line in Cuba that it has become a second home for the Ruskin native and resident.
“Oh man, I love Cuba,” said Thompson, 64, who has been participating in fishing tournaments there since 1993. “I love its people. I love its culture. I love its beautiful nature.”
So Thompson feels a responsibility to help protect the island’s pristine nature reserves, some of which are being threatened by an onslaught of tourist anglers.
Thompson has spent the past year recruiting a collection of Americans — including the grandson of Ernest Hemingway — to help teach kids living around the island’s Zapata Swamp National Park how to protect the ecosystems and earn a living via ecotourism.
“Zapata is one of Cuba’s most beautiful sanctuaries,” Thompson said. “The kids there are its future stewards.”
Titled “The Guiding Youth Project,” the after-school and weekend program is still in its planning phase. But sponsors hope it eventually will include classroom facilities and will recruit Cuban citizens to teach the children about all aspects of environmental sustainability.
Under U.S. law, Americans still can’t visit Cuba for tourism reasons. A trip must fall under one of 12 categories, including education, humanitarian, scientific research and athletic competition. Fishing tournaments in Cuba fall under the last category.
But recreational fishing there is considered a tourist activity.
It now seems doubtful that the United States’ Cuba tourism ban will be lifted under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. Trump has promised to reverse President Barack Obama’s executive orders that move toward normalizing relations with the island nation.
Still, even without Americans, the Cuban tourism industry is surging and Thompson said these visitors are beginning to realize that the island’s nature reserves are as beautiful as its popular beaches.
He is concerned that overfishing and new waterside hotels to house tourists could damage the nation’s ecosystem. But Thompson also believes there can be a balance between business and environmental protection.
Rather than building giant resorts, he said, small bed-and-breakfasts and inns that cater to ecotourists can have a positive impact on the economy without hurting the environment.
Last year, he started his own “Support the Cuban People Fishing Program” that teaches Cuban anglers proper catch-and-release techniques and how to run small charter boat operations that focus on quality outings instead of the quantity of fish reeled in.
It was while holding such classes that Thompson met Felipe Alonso, a fishing guide in the Zapata Park on Cuba’s southern coast.
Alonso instructs at-risk children how to work in his field. As adults, he hopes, they will feel compelled to protect Cuban nature sanctuaries against overdevelopment, even if tourism dollars prove a big temptation.
Thompson agreed to help the Cuban fishing guide expand his program, enlisting Patrick Hemingway — grandson of the American author beloved in Cuba — and Jeffrey Boutwell, board member with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund in Washington, D.C.
“It’s not that anyone wants to keep Zapata restrictive or for the privileged,” Boutwell said, “But it has to be managed in an environmentally sound way and in a way that allows only a certain amount of traffic. That takes knowledge.”
Thompson also recruited Jay Shelton and Kris Irwin, professors from the University of Georgia who are already involved with their institution’s satellite campus in Costa Rica, where university students learn about environmental sustainability on a 155-acre campus that doubles as a nature preserve.
Shelton and Irwin are applying for grants to purchase computers, scientific equipment and classroom supplies for the Cuban program. And schools and community centers in that area have expressed interest in hosting the program until land can be acquired on which to build facilities.
“We will make this happen,” Thompson said. “I guarantee it.”