US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

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History of Preservation Efforts
Managing the National Marine Sanctuary
Ongoing Resource Management Issues

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Few marine environments in the United States compare to the Florida Keys in natural beauty and resource diversity. An island chain on the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, the Keys are surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the south, and Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico to the north. They stretch 202 miles (356 km) to the south and west, ending 90 miles north of Cuba. On the ocean side, adjacent to the island chain, lies North America's only living coral barrier reef. This reef system is the most extensive living coral reef in the U.S. and is the third largest barrier reef in the world (FKNMS, 2001). It is part of a productive marine ecosystem that includes patch and bank reefs, seagrass meadows, soft and hard bottom communities, and coastal mangroves. This matrix of interconnected habitats supports one of the most biologically diverse assemblages of marine life in North America (DOC, 1996).

The reef system in the Florida Keys is the third largest barrier reef in the world. It is part of a productive marine ecosystem, made up of a matrix of interconnected habitats, which support one of the most biologically diverse assemblages of marine life in North America. Shown here are brain coral and a sea fan. (Source: National Marine Sanctuary Photographer: Stephen Cook)

History of Preservation Efforts

The Florida Keys have been a popular destination for explorers, scientists and tourists for centuries. However, their popularity has led to pollution of the marine ecosystem and overuse of resources. Signs of anthropogenic degradation in the Keys became apparent several decades ago. Corals were being damaged and water quality was suffering. Many began to recognize that the Keys' environment and resources were fragile and needed protection before they were damaged beyond repair (FKNMS, 2001).

In 1957, a group of conservationists and scientists met to discuss the state of the coral reefs and other marine resources in the Keys. This conference resulted in the creation of the nation's first underwater park in 1960―the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (DOC, 1996). Despite the establishment of this park, pollution, over-harvesting of resources, physical impacts, and other conflicts continued to plague the Keys. Additional management efforts were initiated when the public began to call for more protection. Thus, the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, which is adjacent to Pennekamp Park, was established in 1975, and the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary was established in 1981 (DOC, 1996). Though these two marine sanctuaries encompassed only a small fraction of the Keys' marine environment, they represented an important step in protection for the region.

Yet, threats to the coral reef ecosystem continued. Proposed oil drilling in the mid- to late 1980s and reports of deteriorating water quality throughout the region surfaced as scientists were assessing rates of coral bleaching, seagrass die-offs, declines in reef fish populations and the spread of coral diseases (DOC, 1996). The final insult came in the fall of 1989 when three large ships ran aground on the coral reef within an 18-day period, destroying critical reef habitat. The cumulative impacts of these events prompted U.S. Rep. Dante Fascell and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham to introduce bills in November 1989, calling for more protection of the area. Congress passed the bi-partisan bill with little resistance, and on Nov. 16, 1990, President George Bush signed the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act into law (DOC, 1996). The act designated approximately 2,800 square nautical miles of state and federal waters in the Keys as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Three species of seagrass are prominent in the Keys: turtle grass―the most extensive―manatee grass and shoal grass. (Source:Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary)

Managing the National Marine Sanctuary

Following the sanctuary designation, representatives of the newly formed Sanctuary Advisory Council, members of the public, and federal, state, and local agency officials worked to assemble a management plan for the sanctuary (Barley, 1993). Important issues addressed in the management plan came from several sources, including technical workshops, public meetings and surveys, and Sanctuary Advisory Council members.

During the six years it took to complete the management plan, participants encountered both support and opposition from the Florida Keys community. Those who opposed the sanctuary feared excessive regulations, economic losses, and possible displacement of traditional users and uses (Suman, 1999). The community was interested in improving water quality, but it also was concerned about possible restrictions placed on boating activities, commercial and recreational fishing, recreational use of cultural and historical resources, and general land use (DOC, 1996). Because the management design process included unprecedented public involvement, it was developed with all of these concerns in mind.

After conducting a thorough analysis of five different management alternatives and seeking extensive public comment, the preferred (and current) management plan was selected because it most closely met the resource protection goals of the National Marine Sanctuary Act and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act. Yet, it still allowed public use of the sanctuary. It also recognized the role of federal, state and local management authorities in meeting sanctuary objectives (DOC, 1996).

One innovative component of the sanctuary management plan is the combination of sanctuary-wide regulations with a system of marine zoning. Approximately 6 percent of the sanctuary is set aside as fully protected zones known as ecological reserves, sanctuary preservation areas and special use areas. Stringent restrictions on harvesting marine life and harming natural resources govern these zones to ensure their long-term survival. Twenty-four fully protected zones exist within the sanctuary. They protect critical habitat, preserve species diversity and relieve pressure from some coral reef areas.

In 2001, the Tortugas Ecological Reserve was established to complete the sanctuary zoning scheme outlined in the management plan. This new reserve helps protect fish stocks in the Tortugas, ensuring the stability of commercial and recreational fisheries. Vessel discharges and anchoring activities are restricted in this zone to protect water quality and habitat. Scientists hope that the reserve's geographical isolation will help them distinguish between natural and human-caused changes to the coral reef environment (DOC, 2000).

The swath of a boat propeller is clearly visible in this Florida Keys seagrass bed. (Source:Harold Hudson, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary)

The sanctuary also includes 27 wildlife management areas that protect sensitive wildlife habitats by restricting public access. Finally, the sanctuary encompasses 20 existing management areas, which are managed by other agencies. Such areas include national parks, national wildlife refuges, state parks and aquatic preserves. In the remaining unzoned portions of the sanctuary, management activities focus on improving water quality and protecting habitat (FKNMS, 2001).

The sanctuary also enforces specific regulations that protect and preserve ecological, recreational, research, educational, historical and aesthetic resources, and aim to minimize conflicts among users. These regulations pertain to boating, fishing, submerged land use, submerged cultural resource use and recreational activities. The sanctuary implements several techniques to ensure that these regulations are followed. For example, frequently used channels, no-wake areas and shallow reefs are marked with highly visible buoys that warn boaters of critical areas and help them avoid groundings, propeller damage, or other injury to corals, seagrasses and the seabed. The buoys help to reduce boat wakes in sensitive habitats, areas vulnerable to erosion, and high-density areas like marinas.

In addition, the sanctuary employs mooring buoys in areas of high recreational use. Instead of dropping anchors that can potentially damage reefs or the seabed, boats can tie up to these buoys to let passengers snorkel or SCUBA dive (DOC, 1996). Techniques for managing water quality include establishing no-discharge zones―areas where vessels are not allowed to discharge wastes―and establishing mobile pump-out services that remove wastewater from vessels located outside of marina facilities (DOC, 1996).

Mooring buoys are important management devices to protect coral reefs from the damaging impacts of boat anchors. (Source:Laura Urian, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary)

The sanctuary relies on an extensive education program to ensure protection of the Keys' resources. Education and outreach efforts are aimed primarily at tourists, recreational users, residents and students. Education campaigns focus primarily on managing boating, fishing, SCUBA diving and snorkeling because these activities have the potential to seriously damage coral and seagrasses if they are conducted carelessly.

Finally, research and monitoring activities are critical components of the sanctuary's primary goal of resource protection. Research and monitoring activities have helped scientists establish baseline information for various components of the ecosystem. Using this information, scientists can study cause and effect linkages and direct research to determine the reasons for reef decline. Among other studies, scientists are conducting a zone monitoring program, which tracks and compares ecological changes inside and outside of the fully protected zones. They also are monitoring the health status and trends of corals, seagrasses and water quality under the Water Quality Protection Program (FKNMS, 2001).


Ongoing Resource Management Issues

Despite active management, the sanctuary continues to face declines of healthy coral. Rates of coral disease and bleaching are increasing, and algae is increasingly invading seagrass beds and coral reefs. Overfishing, reduced freshwater inflow from Florida Bay, inadequate wastewater and stormwater management, damage to coral from careless boaters and divers, and occasional large ship groundings all continue to challenge managers (FKNMS, 2001).

The future of sanctuary management will depend on the outcome of a five-year management plan review, which currently is underway and scheduled for completion by July 2002. The five-year review will allow managers to adjust the management plan as needed and possibly eliminate management strategies that are no longer relevant.

Repairing coral damage in the Florida Keys. (Source:Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary)


Barley, G. 1993. The Florida Keys Example From An Activist Citizen's Point of View. Oceanus. 36(3).

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). 2001. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary's Web site.

National Marine Sanctuaries (NMS). 2001. The National Marine Sanctuary Program's Web site.

Suman, D., M. Shivlani and J. Milon. 1999. Perceptions and Attitudes Regarding Marine Reserves: A Comparison of Stakeholder Groups in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Ocean & Coastal Management: 42.

U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC). 1996. Strategy for Stewardship: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Final Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement. 3 volumes.

U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC). 2000. Strategy for Stewardship: Tortugas Ecological Reserve Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement/Final Supplemental Management Plan. 310 pp.