- Associated Press - Saturday, February 15, 2014

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Marine biologists who study the Gulf of Mexico have a joke: The FBI, the DEA, the CIA - none of them have anything on scientists when it comes to tracking the flow of secretive traffic between Cuba and the United States.

“They have not gotten the memo,” quipped David Vaughan, with Sarasota-based Mote Marine Laboratory, whose international criminals are not spies but spiny lobsters - as well as sharks and dolphins. “They are constantly breaking the travel embargo.”

But one group of scientists isn’t laughing any more, instead watching helplessly as they become the next punch line in marine biology.

Like all employees of Florida’s public universities, scientists are prohibited by a law passed in 2006 from using state money for travel to Cuba.

More than most scientists, though, marine biologists see access to the communist island nation just 90 miles of Florida’s shores as the difference between success and failure in their field.

Now, they’re being left further behind as researchers from other states and from private institutions in Florida scramble to take advantage of new signs that Cuba relations are improving: an easing of travel restrictions by the White House, an agreement to cooperate in oil spills, even a tour by the University of Tampa baseball team.

Scientists already have begun collaborating with their counterparts in Cuba on research that could reverse the deterioration of coral reefs, prevent overfishing, and lead to better understanding of the gulf ecosystem.

They’re doing work that could benefit Florida. They’re just not from USF, the University of Florida or Florida State University.

“We are connected,” said Donald Behringer, an assistant professor at UF’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation & Emerging Pathogens Institute. “In order to understand our own ecosystem we also have to understand Cuba‘s.

“Unfortunately, it is more difficult for us in Florida than any other state in the United States to work with Cuba.”

Senate Bill 2434, titled “Travel To Terrorist State,” forbids money that flows through a state university - including grants from private foundations - to be used for travel to a nation on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba is on the list.

Sponsored by former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, the bill was passed in 2006 without a single no vote in either the Florida House or Senate then signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush.

Florida is the only state in the country with such a prohibition.

Professors can use their own money to travel to Cuba for research, but only on personal time. And it’s an expensive trip.

“I’ve been able to cobble together money for a plane ticket and go to Cuba a few times,” said Behringer, “but it’s hard. Faculty members from other states can use research money to pay their way. This puts Florida schools at a disadvantage.”

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