5. A Sanctuary for life in Florida's seas

Posted: 19 January 2001

Author: John C. Ogden

Author Info: John C. Ogden is Director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, Professor of Biology at the University of South Florida, and a member of the boards of the World Wildlife Fund US and the Center for Marine Conservation. From 1991-1997, he was a member of the Advisory Council which drafted the Sanctuary Management Plan.

For further information, visit the website of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Ten years ago, the US Government formally established the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary - over 9500 km² in area including all of the Florida Keys from Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas and contiguous with Everglades and Biscayne National Parks. Efforts since then to preserve this unique ecosystem have raised fundamental choices for the future of marine protected areas in the United States. John Ogden reports.

The environment of Florida Keys has long been regarded with alarm. Heading a long list of problems are precipitous declines in commercially and recreationally fished species, steadily declining coral cover, decreased water quality, and increasing blooms of benthic and planktonic algae.

In 1991 a major planning process was begun by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), centering on the Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC), a broadly representative group of local stakeholders, supported by an cooperative group of federal, state, and local agencies. After six years of work, the Governor of Florida signed a co-operative agreement with NOAA in July 1997 to manage state waters (from the shoreline to 3 miles offshore) under the federal Sanctuary Management Plan.

The plan consists of 10 action areas including channel marking, education, enforcement, mooring buoy, regulatory, research and monitoring, submerged cultural resources, volunteers, water quality, and zoning. Water quality and zoning have caused the most public controversy. Water quality The plan recognizes that careless use of the landscape and sewage disposal are major causes of declining water quality. Poor land-use practices have changed formerly "gin clear" coastal waters to ones clouded by plankton blooms and sediments which can kill organisms such as corals which require clear, clean waters to thrive. Upstream of the Sanctuary, 50 years of water management displaced the natural rainfall-driven broad, sheet-flow of freshwater across the Everglades, east to the Atlantic to prevent flooding in urban and agricultural areas. Downstream in Florida Bay, the lack of freshwater runoff changed the normal seasonal cycle of high and low salinity in dry and wet periods to persistent high salinities. This has been implicated in the massive die-back of seagrasses which began in Florida Bay in 1987 and which continues on a smaller scale today. Potential cascading impacts of the die-back include plankton blooms in the Bay and sponge mortalities, declines in the recreational and commercial fishery, and coral mortality farther downstream in the Sanctuary. fishOne of the results of the water quality management plan was to link water quality in the Sanctuary to the health of Florida Bay and the Everglades. This link stimulated the Everglades Restoration which, through a federal-state partnership, is committed to a multi-year, multi-billion dollar re-plumbing of the Everglades to restore the quality, quantity, timing, and distribution of freshwater flows through the Everglades into the Bay. Marine reserves Following the success of the ocean-zoning plan of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia, the Sanctuary's plan uses zoning to separate potentially conflicting human activities. Three types of zones, Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPAs), Special-Use Areas, and Ecological Reserves, are fully protected from all extractive human use, including fishing and aquarium fish collection. Of these, the Ecological Reserves proved to be the most controversial as relatively large areas were closed to use by recreational and commercial fishers. Fully protected marine reserves are rare in the United States. as they threaten the traditional right of open access to the ocean. Through concerted political action, the five reserves in early drafts of the plan, encompassing approximately 20 per cent of the area of the Sanctuary, were drastically cut. The first cut was to three reserves at 10 per cent of the Sanctuary area, then to three reserves at 5 per cent, and finally to one ecological reserve of 31 km² near Key West - less than 0.01 per cent of the total Sanctuary area. Adding in the SPAs and special-use areas where fishing is also prohibited, the total fully protected area of the Sanctuary is 50km².

Most people are astonished to learn that 50 km² is the total area of the 9500 km2 Sanctuary fully protected from fishing and other extractive use. This tiny level of protection stands in stark contrast to any of our 720 national parks and 93 million acres of wildlife refuges where large areas are routinely protected from hunting and all extractive human uses. Perhaps for this reason discussions begun in 1998 have moved relatively quickly to a plan for a second 540 km² ecological reserve in two sections in the Dry Tortugas. At a stroke this reserve will increase the fully protected area of the Keys Sanctuary by a factor of 10. Perhaps even more astonishing is that it will quadruple the national area of fully protected marine reserves. The Tortugas proposal is currently under public review and will be fully implemented by early 2001.

Restoring biodiversity

In addition to general protection for marine biodiversity, fully protected marine reserves are the only effective tool that fishers, managers, and scientists have to gather baseline data from undisturbed areas so the impact of fishing and disturbance in the rest of the Sanctuary can be assessed. Coral reefs are particularly sensitive to the removal of large sized predatory fishes, such as snappers and groupers, which disrupts the balance of the reef and may contribute to dominance by benthic algae. This condition is now seen in many parts of the Keys and elsewhere in the Caribbean region. fishA research programme, begun in 1998, centring on the Western Sambos-the one current ecological reserve in the Sanctuary-- indicates that it should be possible to re-build populations of larger size classes of fishes, lobsters, and conchs within three to five years. In addition to restoring biodiversity, these larger organisms will attract people who expect that sanctuaries will have undisturbed areas to visit within a larger area zoned for many uses. A large grouper is more valuable being seen by snorkelers than it is on a fishing line. We also expect that the reproductive output of organisms within the reserve will help to sustain regional biodiversity and some level of managed resource use outside its boundaries.

While past research indicates a rapid response of fishes and motile invertebrates to reserve protection, the situation is not as clear for corals and benthic algae, which are not fished. The main reason for this is that in addition to local factors, these organisms respond to regional influences such as nutrification and global ocean-atmosphere disturbances causing seasonally warm seawater. Excessively warm water causes corals to "bleach" through the expulsion of the intracellular symbiotic algae which give corals their colour and which are essential to their health. If the temperature stress is prolonged, bleaching will kill corals and benthic algae will take over the reef surface. Episodes of coral bleaching are increasing in frequency in concert with increasing evidence of warming oceans. Of course, global warming cannot be managed by local reserves, but the clear evidence of a beneficial local effect argues strongly for their implementation.

Over the past decade, Floridians have begun to develop a sense of the vulnerability of the coastal ocean and of their role as stewards in the sustainable use of a national resource. However, nothing of the scale and complexity of the Keys Sanctuary management plan has ever been attempted in the United States. There are powerful social forces arrayed against the concept of limiting growth and regulating human behaviour for sustainable use of the environment. There is also great resistance to the use of zoning to close areas of the ocean to fishing and extractive use. We must develop the political will to take the opportunity afforded by the Sanctuary to work towards sustainability of marine resources. Until this happens, the fate of the "American Tropics" remains in doubt.

  • The Tortugas Reserve was approved in April 2001 by by the state government of Florida and will be the largest no-fishing zone in US waters. The reserve will protect 191 square nautical miles of deep and shallow reefs, spawning sites, seagrass beds and other habitats from fishing, anchoring and other damaging activities. The reserve, designed by a diverse group of fishermen, conservationists, collectors and scientists who have worked since 1998 to protect the Dry Tortugas some 70 miles west of Key West in the Florida Keys, will encompass two zones: Tortugas North and Tortugas South. WWF has identified the Florida Keys as a Global 200 Ecoregion.