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2007 Florida Keys Mission
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Mission Log Sept. 14, 2009

George Garrett

The fashionable science diver this year is wearing white ankle-high dive sox, accessorizing with duct tape. The sox are blend of cotton and polyester for wear and durability. All the rave, we’ll just have to see whether the trend takes.

ONMS national multimedia coordinator Paul Chetirkin shoots some high-definition video of soft corals, while Kathy Morrow examines Mountainous Star Coral (Montastraea faveolata) occuring inside the suvey arc. (Photo by Mike Henley)
Aboard the Foster, diving goes on with a fervor and dedication to ones craft, whether with “appropriate” gear or make-shift dive booties – socks and duct tape. Some fifty sites have been monitored routinely for thirteen years throughout the Florida Reef Tract, where elements of coral cover, health, and disease have been the focus of interest. Whether from coastal pollution, global climate change, disease, physical impacts, or the integration of multiple factors, the reefs are in decline. There are positive notes, a days diving at the reef is still an exhilarating experience. For those with the imprint of years of reef images, these days are tough. The reefs aren’t what they were.

I work for a local municipality. For twenty-two years I worked for Monroe County (the island chain of the Florida Keys) and now for the City of Marathon at the heart of the Keys. Management of this vast marine and coral reef resource falls to the State of Florida and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The congressional legislation that created the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary also created the first Water Quality Protection Program within a Sanctuary boundary. Though many water quality impacts within this Sanctuary are far-field, arriving from the east coast of Florida, the Gulf States or the wider Caribbean, many are local.

As local governments were a part of the team that developed the FKNMS Management Plan, we became a local but integral part of the solution. A comparison of the Sanctuary Management Plan and local Comprehensive Growth Management Plans shows a great number of goals in common, particularly on water quality matters. Through a fifteen year period we have worked diligently with our state and federal partners to improve the state of wastewater and stormwater management in the Florida Keys. In the City of Marathon, we will soon meet a 2010 legislated mandate to improve wastewater processing to remove a substantial quantity of the nutrient load that impacts our nearshore waters. Other local governments are taking similar measures and will meet these same legal obligations. The City of Marathon has taken the high road in this effort as they have developed in parallel with its wastewater system, an innovative stormwater management system. The approach that the City has taken is award winning. Stormwater from the streets of Marathon will largely disappear in the future down shallow injection wells after significant pre-treatment. Innovative because the system underlies the wastewater system and is being constructed at the same time as the wastewater system – in essence, the same trench and lower costs.

So, what’s the City of Marathon Planning Director doing on a Coral Disease Monitoring cruise on the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster? In part it is based upon a personal, professional, and long time relationship with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. And, the functional and philosophical directions of the program make sense to me. They work – solution oriented, maximizing the use of external resources (other individuals, agencies, and entities) while minimizing jurisdictional boundaries, egos, and logos. But really, it an integration of training in biology and chemistry, a life experience in the growth management field, and a lot of time spent integrating science into the realities of policy. Bottom line, sometimes you just have to get out in the field and “see it” in order to be able to convey the importance of protecting it – the resource, the natural beauty of the Florida Keys.

The Giant Basket Star (Astrophyton muricatum) perched on a gorgonian, with outstreched arms used to capture food. (Photo by Mike Henley)
I am fortunate, on behalf of the City of Marathon and at the invitation of the FKNMS, to be able to participate in this year’s Coral Disease Monitoring cruise as I have in past years. I can not tell you how much I look forward to the opportunity to see the Dry Tortugas and to dive the majestic reefs of “Sherwood Forest” when invited on this cruise. There’s simply something about this place. Though impacted by outside influences, the coral cover at the Sherwood Forest reefs is absolutely breath taking. The more typical Lobed or Boulder Star Corals of the Keys are transformed into the “flat plated” or mushroom morphotype (shape) of the Mountainous Star Coral out west of Fort Jefferson. Wow!! Then, there are the Great Star Corals. Also found in the Keys proper, a significant number of the heads in Sherwood Forest are “glow in the dark” red, as opposed to the green, mustard, or blue greens typical in the Keys. And then, as one is transiting an “arch” at a Sherwood monitoring sites, there is always the friendly snout of a red grouper poking around. “What you doing?” “Can I help?” At least locally, the “puppy dogs of the sea.”

So, we ultimately move out of the Tortugas and Tortugas Banks to monitor the rest of the Keys. A bit more familiar and a great deal less isolated, but all part of assessing the health of the Florida Keys reefs; done with an eye toward further developing management strategies to protect this spectacular ocean resource.

Stations Surveyed to date: 31
Number of individual dives: 115

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