Recreating responsibly: The Seven Principles of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

July 2020

The Florida Keys: when you imagine such a beautiful place, your first thoughts are likely the warm sun, cool breeze, turquoise waters, and unique way of life. If you are lucky enough to visit Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, you also learn about the amazing world beneath the waves, including coral reefs, seagrass beds, shipwrecks and more than 6,000 species of marine life. When you send that envy-inducing postcard wishing your friends and family members were here, you hope they may travel to this destination one day. But what can you do to ensure the scenic Florida Keys will be waiting for them?

Earlier this year, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was the focus for a team of trainers from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics Hot Spot program. Leave No Trace identifies areas suffering from severe recreational impacts that can thrive again with site specific programs aimed at healthy and sustainable recovery. The team identified water resource impacts, user conflicts and wildlife feeding as issues of concern in the Keys. Combining workshops, outreach, and service projects, the trainers connected with hundreds of Florida Keys residents and visitors to share low-impact recreational messages: The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace. Read on to learn how you can continue their work to keep the Florida Keys healthy.

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

A group of people standing together on the back of a boat holding signs that read 'keep distance from reef' 'don't touch' 'leave only bubbles' 'secure equipment' 'dont stand on coral' 'don't harass marine life' 'maintain buoyancy'.
Blue Star operators follow voluntary criteria to ensure their customers practice responsible recreation. Photo: NOAA

Whether you plan to fish, dive, snorkel, or enjoy a relaxing day on the beach, you can make responsible decisions ahead of time to ensure a safe and enjoyable day on the water. Wear polarized sunglasses to help you read the water, book with a Blue Star operator, and help reduce plastic waste by remembering your reusable water bottle!

Blue Star operators are part of a voluntary recognition program established to reduce the impact of divers, snorkelers and anglers on the ecosystems of the Florida Keys. When planning your dive or fishing trip, book with a Blue Star recognized charter and know you are selecting an operator dedicated to education and habitat conservation.

2. Know Where to Go

A boat attached to a mooring buoy.
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary maintains more than 400 mooring buoys for use by the general public to avoid anchor damage on sensitive habitats. Photo: NOAA

“Keep your bottom off the bottom!” There’s critical habitat down there. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects fragile habitats like coral reefs and seagrass beds, and small impacts can damage these ecosystems in big ways.

When you’re traveling by boat, make sure to watch the water to avoid coming into contact with the bottom, and use a mooring buoy whenever possible. If you’re diving or snorkeling, avoid any contact with fragile coral, as the delicate animals can be easily injured by dangling equipment or an accidental fin kick.

3. Properly Dispose of Waste

Three people holding up a trash bag facing away with ocean in the background
Marine debris (aka ocean trash) cleanups are a great way to get involved in your community and ensure ecosystem health for years to come. Photo: Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics

Don’t be a litterbug! Using trash cans and recycle bins will help keep debris out of the marine ecosystem. You can also help improve the water quality by making sure fish waste is properly disposed of in trash cans rather than in the marina. On a boat, always secure your trash, a quick gust of wind can take it overboard - food scraps included! Eating trash and human food can impact wildlife and cause disruptions to the natural ecosystem.

Want to do more? Join a local marine debris cleanup or pitch in via Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys.

4. Leave What You Find

Mangroves to the right and ocean to the left with a lightly cloudy sky.
Enjoy beautiful sights throughout the Florida Keys, and take lots of photos! Photo: Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics

Shells provide a home for many creatures, and by taking a picture, you can share your shell finds with everyone. Leaving items in place allows future visitors the chance to marvel at the interesting things you found.

Remember to practice responsible recreation when taking your photos. Submit your photographs in our Earth Is Blue social media campaign or for our annual photograph contest.

5. Minimize Hazardous Impacts

Multiple hands holding a trash bag and bucket filled with ropes.
Ensuring waters are free from derelict fishing gear prevents entanglement which can hurt or kill wildlife. Photo: Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics

Keeping dangerous materials like chemicals and oil out of the water will improve the water quality and the health of the ecosystem. Ensure your boat is in tip-top shape. Be sure to pick up after your pets. And use a reef friendly sunscreen.

6. Respect Wildlife

A white bird with a long orange beak and orange legs
Enjoying wildlife, such as this ibis from a distance is a wonderful way to explore the natural world. Photo: NOAA

Keeping your distance from wildlife will allow them to act more naturally, and you may see some amazing behaviors! Remember to give marine mammals and turtles plenty of space, for your safety and theirs. Never feed wild animals, and report any injured animals to the local stranding network.

Review responsible ways and regulations for viewing marine mammals, birds and other wildlife.

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Kayaker from behind on the water with a mangrove line in front of them.
Photo: Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics

Help make sure everyone can enjoy the beautiful Florida Keys in a safe and responsible manner. Be aware of other users who may need a little space, like divers, snorkelers, and anglers.

By following these seven principles, we can all be part of preserving the environment in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, while enjoying the incredible resources of North America’s only living coral barrier reef. It is up to all of us to protect this national treasure for future generations to enjoy.

Nicole Uibel is the volunteer coordinator for Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.