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Into the Zone
Marine Reserves in the Florida Keys help protect coral reefs like this one, which support ecologically and economically important species. (Photo: NOAA)

Management Areas Help Sanctuary Balance Diverse Uses in the Florida Keys

For all the relaxed, sunny charm of the Florida Keys, the ocean waters surrounding the idyllic archipelago are a bustling, crowded place.

The Keys boast a thriving tourism industry and a local community that is passionately connected to the sea. Diving, snorkeling, boating, commercial and recreational fishing, and conservation interests have shared these warm, clear waters for decades, and that combination of intense, often conflicting activities can present a challenge for marine resource managers working to keep the regions ecosystems healthy and productive. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has managed this complex area through an evolving system of marine reserves, zones and regulations since it was created in 1990, making it one of the best examples of coastal and marine spatial planning in the nation.

Billy Causey, director of the National Marine Sanctuary System's Southeast Region, said marine spatial planning plays a big part in the sanctuary's efforts to protect ocean life, habitats and resources while still allowing people to use and enjoy the marine environment.

"In a place like the Florida Keys, which gets 3 million visitors a year, there are many uses and pressures on the environment," Causey said. "One of the main goals of marine spatial planning in the sanctuaries is conservation, and marine zones are a good way to achieve that goal."

The sanctuary contains a variety of zone types: three different forms of no-take reserves - where removal of marine life is not allowed - and two other kinds of management areas, each with regulations developed using community input and tailored to the areas they protect.

Sanctuary preservation areas (SPA), one of the three reserve types, protect 18 of the most popular diving and snorkeling sites in the sanctuaries. All activities that remove resources from the water are prohibited in SPAs, which Causey said has helped solve problems like divers and fishermen interfering with each other's use of the ocean.

"These are small areas, but they play a huge role in conservation and protection," he explained. "It's a tremendous example of how marine spatial planning can be used to resolve conflicts between different user groups."

Research-only areas are another "flavor" of no-take reserve in the Keys. Only scientists and educators with permits are allowed to enter these four reserves, providing a comparison for research purposes between undisturbed areas and those subject to diving use.

The third marine reserve category consists of two large no-take areas called the Western Sambo Ecological Reserve and the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, which were created to protect and restore swaths of important Keys habitat. Both the Western Sambo and Tortugas reserves - established in 1997 and 2001, respectively - have experienced dramatic increases in the number and size of commercially valuable species such as spiny lobster and black grouper over a short span of time.

Jim Bohnsack, a supervisory research fishery biologist for the NOAA Fisheries Service who has studied the Florida Keys marine reserves extensively, said several independent studies have confirmed the positive benefits of the no-take areas.

"We've seen that the reserves do what they're supposed to do in increasing the abundance and average size of marine species, which is encouraging," Bohnsack said.

The Tortugas reserve, which covers 150 square nautical miles of the sanctuary, is the result of a public process that brought in numerous community members to help design the reserve from the ground up. Brian Keller, Southeast Region science coordinator, called the process the "gold standard" of public involvement in marine spatial planning.

"The Tortugas reserve creation process was a product of lessons learned throughout the history of the sanctuary," Keller said. "The key in any marine spatial planning effort is to engage stakeholders early and often. Put them behind the wheel."

No-take reserves aren't the only tool in the sanctuary's marine spatial planning arsenal. Partnerships with other agencies are crucial to the management of the sanctuary, like the 27 wildlife management areas that incorporate both U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida Keys sanctuary regulations. Causey said these areas have been very successful in protecting roosting birds and sea turtle nesting sites, as well as dealing with conflicts between fishermen and jet ski users.

The sanctuary also encompasses several so-called "existing management areas" - a collection of four national wildlife refuges, seven state parks, three state aquatic preserves and two former marine sanctuaries - that were in place before the sanctuary was designated. Causey said all of the original regulations for these areas are still in place, in addition to sanctuary rules.

"To have that existing layer of protection is a huge benefit for the sanctuary," Causey said. "It requires close cooperation with all of those different agencies, which is really essential to effective marine spatial planning in the Florida Keys."

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