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Featured Photo: Last Stand photo but Richard Barnden

Florida’s coral reefs and the Florida Keys marine sanctuary are national treasures enjoyed by millions every year, but they are dying bit by bit, the victim of climate change, coral disease, self-interest, and lack of urgency in addressing underlying problems. In places, the hum of life is still audible: colorful fish swim among the mangrove channels, dart in the reefs, and glide slowly over sandy flats. Elsewhere, the reefs are ghostly skeletons, and life is sputtering.

Part of what makes this area so special is that the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (see map) is the only warm water coral reef ecosystem in the continental United States; making it the only coral reef most Americans can see easily without costly air travel to Hawaii or to our small reefs in the US Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico. Its accessibility makes it both a treasure and a victim. Currently, Marine Conservation Institute is waging a campaign with Florida-based groups and faith leaders to secure a better management plan for the sanctuary—one that expands its boundaries to areas that are biologically significant and limits fishing and use in places that need to recover. This campaign seeks to protect and restore a place that belongs to all US citizens, not just Floridians.

The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the State of Florida share responsibility for managing the sanctuary with NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Unfortunately, the attention of the FWC has been captured by ‘out of touch’ parties—certain fishermen and business owners— who lack a sense of urgency in solving problems like overuse and overfishing that are killing the reefs.[i] Instead, the FWC prefers small, incremental changes in sanctuary nd fishing regulations that won’t upset too many users; not quite a ‘business as usual’ approach . . . but close. Decades of marine science (more on that later), some from nearby in the Dry Tortugas National Park and Ecological Reserves, shows us that in order to save these iconic coral reefs for our children and future generations we have to do better than ‘business as usual’.

Nowhere is the timid approach of the FWC more clear than in its management of an area called the Western Dry Rocks—a place that is critical to the health and ecology of the entire marine sanctuary.

Every year for about 8 months, different species of fish gather in the Western Dry Rocks in a synchronized mating ritual called a spawning aggregation. Once they are done, their eggs float all over the marine sanctuary and replenish fish populations, which in turn boost the vitality of the whole reef ecosystem. But the one square mile spawning area is open to fishing year-round, so many of the fish that gather there never get to reproduce. This drains the rest of the coral reefs of potential life. Allowing fishing at spawning aggregations makes the job of finding fish much easier for charter boat captains and recreational fishermen, but it makes the job of maintaining healthy fish populations much trickier.

Good marine science supports a fishing ban at the Western Dry Rocks while the fish are there to spawn. That’s why we support a fishing closure at the Western Dry Rocks for the full 8 months that the fish are aggregating. We are working hard alongside others to convince the FWC to support this necessary closure, but we fear they will opt for a weaker approach that will leave the area vulnerable.

How do we know that seasonal fishing closures and no-take zones really work to restore corals and fish populations? Several decades of evolving science from around the world in diverse marine ecosystems show this to be true. In the Florida Keys, we need only look about 70 miles west of Key West to the Dry Tortugas National Park—where fishing has been prohibited in its Research Natural Area since 2007—and the nearby Tortugas Ecological Reserves (map)—established in 2001 with no fishing or anchoring—to see how this works and works well.

A recent report and a wonderful visual tour by Environment America called “New Life for the Ocean; How Marine Protections Keep Our Waters Wild” examines six marine protected areas around the world, including the Dry Tortugas. Underwater surveys showed that by the late 1990s, more than 70% of all highly sought fish like groupers and snappers were overfished—for every 10 fish that used to live in these areas, only 2 remained. Corals had declined by 99%.  After these protected areas were established, years of research show that fish populations, biomass, and the number of spawning-sized adult fish have all increased, and the bottom damaged by fishing is recovering. The science shows that marine protection works!

Nassau Grouper By Enric Sala

In the case of one overfished species that is highly prized by fishermen, mutton snapper, a spawning aggregation site in the Tortugas South Reserve has been protected year-round from fishing. As a result, populations have increased dramatically in the nearby National Park, elsewhere in the marine sanctuary, and possibly as far away as Miami. Perhaps the Environment America report can serve as a guiding document for the decision-makers responsible for managing Western Dry Rocks—demonstrating the value of protected spawning aggregation sites for both the fish and the fishermen. [ii][iii]

Establishing highly or fully protected marine areas isn’t the only way of restoring fish populations, increasing biodiversity, and building climate resilience. Strong fishing, boating and usage regulations for activities like diving and snorkeling can all help, too. But science shows that the best means, and ultimately least expensive method, of safeguarding and restoring whole ecosystems is with marine protected areas. The ocean and marine life have an amazing way of healing themselves if we will only leave them alone.

[i] Fishing groups like the Bone Fish and Tarpon Trust, International Game Fish Association, Lower Keys Guides Association, Keep America Fishing, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and individual fishermen and captains support  effective conservation measures like seasonal closures at Western Dry Rocks in the Florida Keys sanctuary. These are not the fishermen or groups who ‘are out of touch’ referenced above.

[ii] James Horrox, Steve Blackledge and Kelsey Lamp, New Life for the Ocean; How Marine Protections Keep Our Waters Wild. Environment America and the Frontier Group, February 2021, pgs. 24-26.

[iii] U.S. National Park Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife National Park Service Conservation Commission, Implementing the Dry Tortugas National Park Research Natural Area Science Plan: The 5-Year Report, 2012.