By Selene Muldowney with Contributions from Gena Parsons, Communications and Outreach Manager;
all photos courtesy NOAA (may not be duplicated).
The Florida Keys, known for their coral reefs as well as other interdependent marine habitats, are the island remnants of ancient reefs and sandbars that flourished during the Pleistocene Epoch. This archipelago of limestone islands is found off the tip of southern Florida, south of Miami, and extends southwest to the Dry Tortugas, a distance of 220 miles. The chain ends approximately 90 miles north of Cuba.
Home to more than 6,000 species of marine life, 1,800 miles of mangrove shoreline, and the largest seagrass bed in the northern hemisphere, the Florida Keys also boast beautiful wildlife, turquoise waters, and plenty of ocean adventure opportunities, including snorkeling, kayaking, and diving. This complex marine ecosystem is the foundation for the tourism and fishing-based economies that are so important to Florida.
Surrounding the islands is the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary covering 3,800 square miles. It is the closest federally-protected coral reef to the continental United States and supports one of the most diverse assemblages of underwater plants and animals in North America. It is the only living coral barrier reef in North America and one of the largest systems of coral reefs in the world.
In 1960, the world’s first underwater park, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, was established as a result of concerted efforts by a group of scientists and conservationists. Their concerns for the health of the coral reef were well founded; careless human behavior led to the slow destruction of the delicate coral reefs. In the 1970s, pollution and overfishing further threatened this interconnected ecosystem leading to additional protective measures. The creation of the National Marine Sanctuary Program in 1972 helped protect the special ecological, historical, and recreational resources of unique ocean habitats. Two areas of the Florida Keys were designated as sanctuaries, one in 1975 and another in 1981. These areas, together with the waters surrounding the entire Florida Keys, became Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary on November 15, 1990. Managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Sanctuary System, these sanctuaries are designed to protect nationally significant marine resources.
The reefs of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are biologically diverse and productive. Fish of all sizes, shapes, and colors can be found darting around the reef. Animals graze on coral polyp algae found throughout the reef. Flamingo tongue snails have a scraping tongue they use to feed on the sea fan polyps. Parrotfish feed by scraping the top of the coral with their strong teeth. During the day, spiny lobsters and long-spine black urchins hide in the reef and dine on turtle grass and algae in the evening hours. The spiny lobster eats just about anything it can reach.
Coral reefs are often compared to tropical rain forests; both support highly diverse life and are susceptible to damage from human activities. Both systems are extremely fragile. A major issue for Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and for reefs worldwide, is the death and destruction of corals. This loss of coral reef habitat is due to a multitude of factors including disease, overfishing, careless recreational use, intensifying storms, and warming water temperatures. Another concern is wastewater and agricultural runoff.
While so many efforts have been made to protect the Florida Keys and adjacent waters, there is still so much more to protect. Unfortunately, while some of the damage and death to the coral reefs and its interconnected marine life is from natural sources like hurricanes, much more is from threats of increased pollution, boat groundings, and other careless human behaviors.
In light of the threats, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary will propose a Restoration Blueprint that embodies what has been learned from nearly 30 years of cutting-edge science, technical experience, and local community involvement.
Diver input welcomed on Florida Keys Restoration Blueprint
Divers who enjoy the coral reefs and shipwrecks in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are encouraged to participate as NOAA conducts its first comprehensive review of the sanctuary’s management plan, boundary, regulations, and marine zones. In the Florida Keys, the marine ecosystem drives the economy and the local way of life, bringing visitors to enjoy world-class diving and fishing, year-round warm temperatures, fresh seafood, and a truly unique culture. Approximately 60 percent of the jobs in the Florida Keys are connected the water and the resources within.
The Restoration Blueprint, due for release in late August, offers divers and other stakeholders the opportunity to comment on proposed changes to the sanctuary’s boundary, marine zones, regulations, and management plan. It includes a series of regulatory and management measures to help turn the tide on the decline in resource conditions in the Florida Keys.
Frequent divers in the Florida Keys will no doubt have noticed a change in the condition of corals and other marine life. When Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary assessed conditions in 2011, most were found to be in fair to poor shape. Since then, the waters of the Florida Keys have experienced a Category 4 hurricane, a historic and ongoing coral disease outbreak, two bleaching events, a seagrass die-off, and increased human use. The proposed actions are in response to cumulative and emerging threats.
The Restoration Blueprint, presented as a draft environmental impact statement, becomes available for viewing on the sanctuary’s website – floridakeys.noaa.gov – on August 20, followed by posting on the Federal Register with the public comment period running August 30, 2019, to January 31, 2020. Public comment can be made online at regulations.gov, in writing at one of five information sessions in the Florida Keys and South Florida. Oral comment will be taken at Sanctuary Advisory Council meetings in October and December.
The document will include four alternatives: status quo, the NOAA-preferred alternative, a less conservative alternative, and a more conservative alternative. Interactive and static maps will be available to enhance understanding of the proposed changes. The diving industry could potentially benefit from proposed regulations that preserve dive sites and improve the value of the recreational experience without causing significant cost increases.
The sanctuary’s 57 marine zones, with differing levels of use and protection, are designed to protect and preserve sensitive parts of the ecosystem while allowing activities that are compatible with resource protection.
Preservation Areas protect shallow reefs, encompass discrete, biologically
important areas that help sustain critical marine species and habitats, and separate
- Ecological Reserves are the largest of the sanctuary zones and protect an entire range of marine habitats.
- Existing Management Areas manage areas established prior to 1997 by their own protections and restrictions in addition to regulations that are applicable sanctuary-wide.
- Wildlife Management Areas are intended to minimize disturbance to sensitive or endangered wildlife and their habitats.
- Special Use Areas support specific targeted activities such as research and restoration.
Since implementation of regulations and marine zones in 1997, the Tortugas Ecological Reserve was added in 2001, a No Discharge Zone regulation within federal waters was added in 2010 (Florida state waters were designated as No Discharge in 2002), and non-regulatory management plan activities were revised in 2007. NOAA’s comprehensive review was undertaken because existing regulations, marine zones, and management plan activities are no longer sufficient to ensure long-term resource protection and ecosystem function. To maintain the status quo of declining marine environment puts the economy and jobs at risk.
For more information on the Restoration Blueprint and how to get involved, visit www.floridakeys.noaa.gov/blueprint.