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Protecting a Special Place Through Ecosystem-based Science

by Walter Bonora
National Marine Sanctuaries

Whether on land or sea, many people form a connection with their environment, but rarely in this day and age does one get the opportunity to protect a relatively undisturbed and unique coral reef ecosystem. The Tortugas Ecological Reserve is that kind of place.

Tortugas Reef Survey
Tortugas Reef Survey (Photo: FKNMS)

Established by NOAA in 2001, the reserve is located at the western end of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and is one of the largest fully protected marine reserves in the United States. Within the reserve, the taking of all marine life or historical artifacts is not allowed except as necessary for monitoring or research.

While the millions of people who visit the Florida Keys each year are familiar with the region’s unique characteristics, not many people know about the innovative effort undertaken by scientists, resource managers and local citizens to create the Tortugas reserve.

Beginning in 1998, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Billy Causey convened a 25-member advisory group to provide recommendations on establishing an ecological reserve in the Dry Tortugas region. The group, made up of fishermen, scientists, divers, business and government agency representatives, was tasked with reviewing available scientific information.

The group was informed by up-to-date investigations on oceanography, fish and fisheries, the relationship between natural resources and cultural uses, and connectivity of the Tortugas area to the broader region. Having fishermen and scientists sitting at the table together talking about observations and data helped engender trust and respect that ultimately led to a proposal that decision-makers could support.

Proposed vessel traffic scheme
Coral (Photo: CCFHR)
According to Causey, one research study in particular, affirmed what commercial fishermen already knew. In that study, scientists used drifter buoys to show that larvae from grouper and snapper spawning at a deep-water reef known as Riley’s Hump would drift in the prevailing current to the reefs off the Florida Keys and Florida’s east coast.

“This study provided conclusive scientific evidence to what commercial fishermen had known for years,” says Causey. The final outcome was Riley’s Hump, which was not initially proposed for protection, was included in the final reserve recommendation by the group.

“Creating the Tortugas Ecological Reserve is a good example of how people can work together to establish a special place,” says Brian Keller, science coordinator for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. “We are already seeing positive results for the relatively short amount of time it has been set aside as a reserve.”

Tortugas Map
Tortugas Map. Click here for a larger view.
Causey highlighted some of those results during a March 2006 science symposium on Capitol Hill. “Large numbers of black grouper have been documented. And they are bigger. We’re also seeing increased numbers in some species of snapper,” says Causey.

Over the years, the Florida Keys coral reef ecosystem has maintained a relatively undisturbed quality of water and marine resources. By establishing the reserve, these resources get further protection so that not only the ecosystem remains healthy, but local economies thrive.

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Revised September 12, 2023 by Sanctuaries Web Team | Contact Us | Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service
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