Case Studies - Oculina Experimental Closed Area
Management of the Reserve
Ranging from 15 to 30 parallel miles off the east coast of Florida, a series of submarine pinnacles and
ridges extends from Ft. Pierce to Cape Canaveral. Reaching as high as 65 feet above the sea floor, these
features act as a foundation for a habitat made distinct by the unique ivory tree coral Oculina varicosa.
A slow-growing, delicate and branchlike coral, ivory tree coral thickets often are associated with high
biodiversity because they provide ideal spawning sites for numerous species, including economically
important fish like several species of grouper (gag, scamp, snowy and warsaw), black sea bass, speckled
hind and red snapper (NOAA, Ocean Explorer, 2001).
Oculina coral heads, such
as this one on Jeffs Reef within Oculina Bank, stand
three to four feet high and three to four feet across.
Such habitat creates thickets that are used
by diverse fish and invertebrate assemblages.
During the 1960s and '70s, hook-and-line fishers frequented Oculina Bank and landed large catches of several
species of groupers. By the early 1990s, much of the habitat was destroyed, and fish stocks appeared to be
severely depleted. The ivory tree coral that provided reef structure needed by many resident species had been
decimated in many places - an outcome believed to be the result primarily of destructive bottom trawling,
though other causes have been implicated (NOAA, Ocean Explorer, 2001).With
the habitat in ruins, fish spawning dropped sharply. In an effort to protect what was left and perhaps repair
the damage, scientists moved to protect the remainder of the unique Oculina coral habitat and reestablish corals
and their associated fish population.
and Management of the Reserve
In 1975, scientists with the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution (HBOI) were conducting underwater
surveys of the continental shelf when they discovered that the high relief pinnacles along the shelf
were colonized by living, deep-water coral reefs composed of Oculina coral. Ensuing studies investigated
the distribution of the coral, its growth rate, community structure, biological and geological processes,
and the effects of upwelling and bioerosion. Studies also predicted the drastic decline in fish stocks and
the destruction of the coral (Reed, 2001).
sample of ivory tree coral, Oculina
varicosa. The coral is as fragile as it appears and
is no match for heavy objects such as anchors or trawls.
Bottom trawling is believed to be the major reason for the coral's
destruction. But other factors may account for some of the
dead coral. For instance, episodic coral die-offs or extensive
bioerosion may have occurred. In addition, it is widely known
that anti-submarine patrols during World War II frequently
and liberally employed underwater explosives in their search
for German U-boats off the coast of Florida. Such activity
may have adversely affected the benthic habitat.
Regardless of the causes for damage, many scientists believed the area needed protection. In 1980, John Reed,
chief scientist in the Division of Biomedical Marine Research at HBOI, petitioned NOAA's National Marine
Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) to protect the Oculina
coral habitat from further harm. Reed, who had conducted extensive research of the habitat and was intimately
familiar with the ecology of the bank, had published numerous articles describing the distribution and growth
of the coral, and the diverse animal communities living among it (HBOI,
one of the most important commercial fish species in the
southeast, taking cover in Oculina
coral. Populations of all grouper species have been severely
reduced on Oculina Bank, most likely the result of habitat
loss and overfishing.
In 1982, the SAFMC published the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Corals and Coral Reefs, which
included a proposed action to develop, adopt and implement a fishery management plan for coral and coral reef
habitats within the areas under the authority of the SAFMC and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.
Among other objectives, the action proposed setting aside a portion of the Oculina Bank as a habitat of
particular concern (HAPC), a designation that would categorize it as an area of special biological significance
worthy of stricter regulatory and enforcement activity (SAFMC, 1982).).
In 1984, the proposed action was finalized, and NMFS set aside 92 square miles of the 300 square-mile Oculina
Bank as an HAPC (HBOI, 2001). ). The new designation prohibited mobile fishing
gear like trawls and dredges, but it did not affect anchoring or weights used for bottom fishing.
location of Oculina Banks off the east coast of Florida.
Here Oculina coral "thickets" grow at depths
of about 230 to 400 ft on a series of pinnacles and ridges
that extend from Ft. Pierce to Cape Canaveral.
Nine years later (in 1991), damaged corals showed few signs
of recovery. To encourage coral recovery, NMFS and SAFMC
proposed to establish the Oculina HAPC as an experimental
closed area - a much stricter designation. The action, which
became effective on June 27, 1994, prohibited all bottom
fishing within the newly designated Oculina Experimental
Closed Area (OECA). The OECA was established as a 10-year
experiment to determine if depleted species, such as snapper
and grouper, would rebound. The restrictions, however, did
not prohibit midwater or surface fishing from moving vessels
Just two years later, SAFMC implemented additional protections for the OECA by
prohibiting anchoring activities of fishing vessels within the area. Fishing
vessels could not drop anchors, grapples or attached chains, which were known
to damage or destroy the coral, within the OECA
By 1998, efforts were underway to amend the Oculina HAPC even further. SAFMC was mandated by a 1996
amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management Act to describe and identify essential fish habitat
(EFH), including adverse impacts on such habitat, in order to minimize damage to EFH resulting from
fishing activities. In addition, the agency was required to identify other actions that encourage the
conservation and enhancement of EFH (Magnuson-Stevens Act,
1996). Because Oculina Bank was considered EFH needing additional protection, SAFMC proposed extending
the boundaries of the reserve by 60 square miles to provide a larger protected area
(SAFMC, 1998). The amendment included creating two
protected satellite sites of three square miles each. In 2000, this marine protected area (MPA) was
expanded to encompass an additional 208 square miles (300 nm2) from Sebastian Inlet up to Cape
Canaveral to reduce gear impacts by eliminating all trawling in the expanded area. Bottom tending
gear and anchoring were also prohibited in the expanded area, but fishing for snapper and grouper
are allowed. (SAFMC).
||Oculina coral rubble.
Currently, large areas of Oculina Bank are in this condition.
Note the faint outline of a reef ball in darkness on the
far right. Scientists hope that these experimental structures
will help to reestablish Oculina habitat.
The proposed change met with some opposition, particularly from the longline fishing industry,
which feared that the new rule would be unduly burdensome. Some detractors argued that the proposed
expansion included large areas that did not contain Oculina coral - only flat mud bottom habitat.
Restricting these areas would not help the coral habitat, but it would affect bottom longline fisheries
for tilefish, grouper and shark, according to the commenters (Federal
However, NMFS reasoned that including the non-coral habitats within the HAPC
would create “buffer zones” around the coral habitat. The buffer
zones would reduce the likelihood of accidental incursions and would simplify
enforcement activities, according to NMFS. In addition, NMFS noted that previous
rules established similar zones around areas fished by the rock shrimp and calico
shrimp industries. The agency argued that the new rule would further streamline
fishing regulations (Federal Register, 2000).
Finally, some commenters contended that the amendment was overly broad and exceeded the agency's authority.
NMFS, however, believed that its legal authority under the Magnuson-Stevens Act was broad enough to restrict
activities, fishing and otherwise, that may adversely affect EFH. Thus, in July 2000, the new rule took effect.
All gear prohibitions and anchoring restrictions that were applicable within the old boundaries applied to the
expanded boundaries and the satellite sites as well (Federal
On April 26, 2004, Amendment 13A to the fishery
management plan for the snapper-grouper fishery of the
South Atlantic region became effective. Amendment 13A’s
intended effect is to continue the benefits of the closed
area, namely, enhanced stock stability and increased recruitment
of South Atlantic snapper-grouper by providing an area
where deepwater snapper-grouper species can grow and reproduce
without being subjected to fishing mortality.
Since 1995, scientists have been trying to reestablish the fragile, slow-growing Oculina corals by deploying concrete substrate to encourage colonization. In 1996, they began by deploying clusters of concrete 'reef balls' throughout the reserve, hoping that the corals would attach, settle and grow. Some were deployed with live coral already attached, and some were deployed bare. Three years later, the scientists discovered that live coral remained on some of the balls. On others, the coral was stripped off, and only one reef ball deployed without coral attached showed coral recruitment (NOAA,
Ocean Explorer, 2001).
2001, a grouper shows interest in one of 105 reef balls
a year after they were deployed on Oculina Bank. On the
right is an arm of the submersible Clelia,
used by scientists to examine progress in this effort
to reestablish Oculina habitat and the associated fish
and invertebrate communities.
In 2000, a different type of reef balldome-shaped equipped
with holes through which fish could swimwere deployed.
The balls, which were similar in size and shape to an Oculina
coral colony, were released with live coral attached. In the
summer of 2001, explorers found that several fish species,
including groupers, amberjacks, snappers, angelfish, butterflyfish
and small basses, had colonized the structuresan encouraging
sign of initial habitat restoration. Researchers also observed
more gag and scamp grouper at the southern end of the EORR.
Just 10 years ago, researchers saw no gag grouper, fewer than
10 scamp grouper, and very few amberjacks in the same area
(NOAA, Ocean Explorer, 2001). Though too
soon to tell how successful the coral reestablishment efforts
will be, scientists are optimistic about their initial restorative
efforts (NOAA, Ocean Explorer, 2001).
Because the OECA is isolated and relatively distant from shore (17 mi), consistent enforcement of the fishing and trawling ban has been difficult. Enforcement authorities are aware that illegal shrimp trawling occurs in the no-fishing zone. Though spotter planes and helicopters can survey the area, they cannot enforce the no-fishing zone restrictions alone. If they suspect illegal activity, they must alert U.S. Coast Guard surface vessels, which may not be available or in an advantageous position to respond immediately. Authorities believe that much of the illegal fishing activity occurs at night, making enforcement more difficult. Also, aerial surveillance missions often cannot distinguish between legal fishing activities, such as trolling for pelagic fish, and illegal anchoring and bottom fishing. Moreover, enforcement officers cannot determine or prove where fish were caught after a suspected boat returns to port (Reed, 2001).
shows the likely impact of bottom trawling on Oculina
Bank. The linear mounds of coral rubble, shown on the
right, are created immediately adjacent to the track of
Working closely with the rock shrimp industry, the SAFMC developed Amendment 5 to the Shrimp Fishery Management Plan, requiring any vessel fishing with a limited access rock shrimp permit in the Council's area of jurisdiction to use an approved vessel monitoring system (VMS). The VMS program, implemented in October of 2003, has greatly increased the ability to enforce trawling restrictions in the area. By using the VMS and conducting random surveillance missions of the protected area, as well as implementing educational efforts aimed at both commercial and recreational fishers, law enforcement agents and managers hope that self-regulation will improve and the Oculina habitat eventually will recover.
Trawling continues to be the primary threat to the ecosystem as evident from recent photographs of trawl nets found on the bottom, destroyed reefball modules, and the documented destruction of the Cape Canaveral Pinnacle reef in the past 25 years. Since 2000, illegal trawling has been documented within the Oculina MPA, and several poachers have been intercepted by the Coast Guard.(Reed et al) Illegal trawling has been observed in the HAPC as recently as October 2002, and rock shrimp trawlers were caught dragging their steel doors and nets through the reserve in 2001.(Shepard and Reed, 2001)
In June 2003, researchers submitted written testimony to the SAFMC, which sets fishery regulations for the region, about the results of the spring cruise and past Oculina Banks research. Based in large part on the critical needs for further protection that this research has highlighted, the council voted unanimously to continue existing fishing and trawling restrictions in the area, which were set to expire in 2004.(SAFMC, 2003)
In March 2004, the SAFMC received approval to continue indefinitely the current prohibition on fishing for South Atlantic snapper-grouper in the experimental closed area and on retaining such species in or from the area. The final rule, effective April 26, 2004, continues the closure, which would have expired in June 2004. The Council will review the configuration and size of the experimental closed area within 3 years of the publication date of the final rule (March 26, 2004) that continues the closure and re-evaluate all measures applicable to the area after 10 years. (SAFMC, 2003)
In the larger HAPC, which extends another 30 miles north to Cape Canaveral, trawling will still be banned, as will anchoring and commercial bottom long-line fishing throughout both areas. Sport fishermen can still troll through the HAPC for such open water fish as dolphin, tuna and sailfish. In the entire HAPC no person may: (1) use a bottom longline, bottom trawl, dredge, pot, or trap; (2) if aboard a fishing vessel, anchor, use an anchor and chain, or use a grapple and chain; or (3) fish for rock shrimp or possess rock shrimp in or from the area on board a fishing vessel. In the experimental closed area, no person may fish for South Atlantic snapper/grouper or retain such species from the area.
The SAFMC believes these actions provide the most biological, social, and economic benefits while allowing for adaptive management. Extending the prohibition on fishing for snapper/grouper species in the experimental closed area for an indefinite period will continue to protect fishery populations, Oculina coral and associated habitat. Such extension will also provide a hedge against a high degree of scientific uncertainty associated with the status of snapper-grouper species and to reduce the possibility that these populations may fall below sustainable levels. The Council wants to provide the highest level of protection to the Oculina coral in this area by prohibiting the use of all gears that may impact them. Economically it is expected that the long-term benefits, such as "insurance" against the uncertainty of stock assessments and the non-use benefits of extending the prohibitions on snapper/grouper fishing in the closed area, outweigh the short-term benefits of opening the area to harvest. These measures are also expected to provide the most long-term positive impacts because they allow for adaptive management which can be seen as an assurance to the public that the area will be monitored and reviewed. The 10?year reevaluation period will assure the public that the area will not be closed and forgotten. (SAFMC, 2003)
Fisheries of the Caribbean, Gulf of
Mexico, and South Atlantic; Essential Fish Habitat for Species
in the South Atlantic; Amendment 4 to the Fishery Management
Plan for Coral, Coral Reefs, and Live/Hard Bottom Habitats
of the South Atlantic Region (Coral FMP). Federal Register,
June 14, 2000 (65, 37292-37296). Washington, DC: U.S. Govt.
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution
(HBOI). 2001. Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institutions
Web site. www.hboi.edu.news/features/oculina.html.
Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation
and Management Act. Public Law
94-265 (as amended through October 11, 1996). http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/magact/
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA). 2001. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,
Ocean Explorer Web site. Oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/islands01/background/
Reed, J. K. In press. Deep-water Oculina
Coral Reefs of Florida: Biology, Impacts and Management. Hydrobiologia.
Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
South Atlantic Fishery Management
Council (SAFMC). 1998. Amendment 4 to the Coral, Coral Reefs
and Live/Hard Bottom Habitat Fishery Management Plan. Comprehensive
Amendment Addressing Essential Fish Habitat in Fishery Management
Plans of the South Atlantic Region.
South Atlantic Fishery Management
Council (SAFMC). 1995.Amendment 3 to the Fishery Management
Plan for Coral, Coral Reefs and Live/Hard Bottom Habitats
of the South Atlantic Region.
South Atlantic Fishery Management
Council (SAFMC). 1993. Amendment 6, Regulatory Impact Review,
Initial Regulatory Flexibility Analysis and Environmental
Assessment for the Snapper Grouper Fishery of the South Atlantic
South Atlantic Fishery Management
Council (SAFMC). 1982. Fishery Management Plan Final Environmental
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