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Keys Sanctuary Unveils Plan To Protect Reef, Surrounding Habitats

Nick Zachar
Stony coral tissue loss disease has affected corals throughout South Florida, such as these pillar coral.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has released its restoration blueprint, an ambitious plan with some major changes for the sanctuary, including expanding its boundaries, adding more protected areas and, in a few cases, limiting access to popular reefs for snorkeling.

The blueprint is still at the proposal stage, with the agency staff's recommendation as the "preferred alternative." The public has until the end of January to weigh in.

"We can stop talking about issues and start talking about action," said Sanctuary Superintendent Sarah Fangman. "Our community, our way of life and our economy are all tied to the ocean in the Florida Keys."

Credit Matt McIntosh
Snorkeling is popular along the Keys reef. The new restoration blueprint proposes limiting access at a few reefs along the Keys.

Proposals include extending sanctuary boundaries along the southern and eastern edges to align with the existing Area To Be Avoided, which was created to keep large ships from grounding on the coral reef.

Boundaries would be extended to connect the sanctuary with the Tortugas South Ecological Reserve. If both those changes take place, the sanctuary would increase from 3,800 square miles to 4,541 square miles.

The plan would also increase the number of marine zones that have special rules in place, such as no fishing or idle speed. Those zones would increase from 57 to 98 zones.

Some new categories would be added, such as zones that protect coral nurseries and restoration areas.

And the plan proposes limiting use of a few popular reef areas, one in each area of the Keys: Carysfort in the Upper Keys, Sombrero in the Middle Keys and Sand Key off Key West.

The idea is to "test how we might limit human use and human activity," said Beth Dieveney, a policy analyst with the sanctuary.

Many popular reef — and other wildlife — areas struggle with the concept of a carrying capacity, said Andy Bruckner, the sanctuary's research coordinator. In the case of the Keys, marking off special "sanctuary preservation areas" where fishing is banned and mooring buoys are installed attracts lots of boats. Maybe too many.

"If there's too many people that go in there, they can cause either physical impacts or other other sorts of impacts associated with their boats, associated with what they're doing in a particular area," he said.

Credit Shawn Verne
Shallow water reefs like Looe Key have been protected for decades. The plan proposes adding more protected areas near shorelines and in deepwater.

The impact depends on the conditions at the individual reef, he said — like how shallow it is, whether the corals are branching or boulder.

And it depends on how experienced the people who visit are on the water.

"A lot of times you get, especially the visitors that come down that are new divers, if you have too many people in there they're much more likely to cause breakage to the corals and damage to the habitat," he said.

The sanctuary has not proposed specific ways to limit use, but is looking at other areas that have required certification or a guide, for example.

Bruckner said the sanctuary does not want to bar locals who are familiar with the shallow, fragile reef environment.

"They've been using those areas forever. They're going to understand what's there and they know the area better," he said. "It's really more the people that have come from Indiana, for instance, and rent a boat and aren't the best at driving a boat and they're not the best in the water because they don't have all the experience."

Clint Barras is vice chair of the sanctuary advisory council. He represents the tourism industry on the council— and he said the proposal should be considered.

"The resource takes tremendous pressure and there's certain key spots where a lot of operators go and work day in and day out on the same location. We're going to have to strike a balance between use and protection," he said.

Other proposals in the blueprint include adding more kinds of habitat in protected areas, such as hardbottom, seagrass and deeper reefs.

And it would add regulations such as no anchoring and no baitfishing in sanctuary preservation areas. It would also eliminate the exception for catch-and-release trolling that's now allowed in four of those areas.

Credit Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
The reefs along the Keys have declined significantly, as this comparison of the reef at Cheeca Rocks shows.

The proposal also wants to tighten the rules on discharges from cruise ships, which can now empty water from "routine vessel operations," including greywater. If approved, only discharges of clean water from cooling, bilges and anchor washing would be allowed.

The Keys reef has been declining for decades, with recent accelerated losses attributed to coral bleaching and, most recently, stony coral tissue loss disease.

Barras said it's still worth taking action to protect the Keys ecoystem.

"There's so many factors that are beyond our control," he said. "But that does not mean we throw our hands up and do nothing. The things that we can control, we need to. We need to provide some relief on the resource."

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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