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Case Studies - Oculina Experimental Closed Area

Genesis and Management of the Reserve
Additional Protections
Habitat Restoration
Enforcement Challenges

Slide Show

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 and blue angel fish Healthy Oculina coral heads, such as this one on Jeff’s 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.

Genesis 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 Oculina coral A small 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, 2001).

Gag grouper taking cover in Oculina coral Gag grouper, 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.

Map of approximate location of Oculina Bank Approximate 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.


Additional Protections

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 (SAFMC, 1993). 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 (SAFMC, 1995).

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 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 Register, 2000).

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 Register, 2000).

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.


Habitat Restoration

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).

Closeup of experimental reef ball In September 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 ball—dome-shaped equipped with holes through which fish could swim—were 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 structures—an 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).

Enforcement Challenges

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).


Trawl tracks and coral rubble. This image 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 the trawl.

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. Printing Office.

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution (HBOI). 2001. Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution’s Web site.

Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Public Law
94-265 (as amended through October 11, 1996).

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 2001. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Ocean Explorer Web site.

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 Region.

South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC). 1982. Fishery Management Plan Final Environmental Impact Statement for Coral and Coral Reefs.



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