The sparkling waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary help pump $4.4 billion into the state's economy while supporting 43,000 jobs, according to a report published Tuesday.
The study was commissioned by the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation in advance of a new management plan for the 3,800 square-mile sanctuary. The plan, called a restoration blueprint, will lay out alternatives for dealing with increasing threats from climate change, pollution and over-fishing. It's expected to be published in August and will be open to public comment, said foundation CEO and president Kris Sarri.
"We thought it was really important to demonstrate that this sanctuary benefits Monroe County, but also has tremendous benefits that ripple throughout the entire state," Sarri said.
The Keys have just 75,000 residents, the study reported, but get up to 2 million overnight visitors every year. Those tourist dollars have a cascading effect, pumping money into gas stations, retail stores, utilities, agriculture and more.
"The moment they put that toe in the water, they're in the sanctuary," Sarri said. "The vital health of this ecosystem is really linked to the economy because they are making choices to come to the Keys, both because of its iconic culture but also because of the natural beauty of the area."
Over the past few decades, the sanctuary that includes the U.S. mainland's only inshore barrier reef has come under increasing threat. Between 1996 and 2004, corals being monitored for disease jumped over 400 percent. The number of species being hit climbed over 200 percent, according to a 2004 report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network. Since 2014, a mysterious disease that appeared off Virginia Key has killed stony corals from Martin County past Key West.
In 2017, Hurricane Irma also swept over the sanctuary, tearing up lobster and stone traps that continue to litter the bottom, Sarri said. Since the storm, a sanctuary-sponsored clean-up project has helped remove 15,000 pounds of debris and 16,000 feet of line.
The new management plan is an attempt to devise a new blueprint for dealing with the threats, she said.
"NOAA will be able to use this study to show and demonstrate really the value of the sanctuary to people and the value of protecting it," Sarri said, "both for a strong economy and also for the species it protects."