President Obama entered office with a promise to close the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility. As his time in office draws to a close, the president is trying to make good on that promise, announcing prison closure plans last month. Two academics have suggested that, if the prison does close, it be transformed into a marine research station and peace park. They published an op-ed outlining their recommendations this week in the journal Science.

The words “Guantánamo Bay” tend to provoke images of violence and human rights violations, but conservation biologist Joe Roman and military law expert James Kraska say the bay has much, much more to offer. Years of isolation and intensive conservation efforts have been terrific for Cuba’s environment and wildlife, Roman said in a press statement, turning the bay into more than just an “accidental Eden,” with coral reefs, wildlife, and fish “unparalleled in the Caribbean.”

Spiny lobster like those found in Cuban waters. Image credit: Claire Fackler, NOAA via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Roman and Kraska say that if the prison goes, the naval base will follow, leaving behind perfectly good buildings that could easily be converted to a jointly owned Cuban-American research station. "Cuba has great conservation scientists," Roman says. "They just don't have money or equipment."

The authors also propose dedicating the surrounding land and water to threatened Cuban manatees and hawksbill sea turtles.

"This model, designed to attract both sides, could unite Cuba and the United States in joint management, rather than serve as a wedge between them," the scholars wrote, "while helping meet the challenges of climate change, mass extinction and declining coral reefs."

"Guantánamo could become the Woods Hole [a renowned oceanographic center] of the Caribbean," Roman said in a statement. "This could be a powerful way for the Obama administration to achieve the president's 2008 campaign promise to close the prison—while protecting a de facto nature reserve and some of the most important coral reefs in the world."

Will the idea take? It seems unlikely, but Roman and Kraska have hope. "For the next generation," they write, "the name Guantánamo could become associated with redemption and efforts to preserve and repair the environment and international relationships."