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June 20, 2006

Cheva Heck
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
(305) 292-0311 ext. 26
(305) 304-0179 (cell)


As its fifth anniversary approaches, researchers find confirmation that the country’s largest marine reserve, part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, is fulfilling its goal of protecting the region’s marine life.

Three studies examining the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, protected from fishing since July 2001, documented increasing numbers and sizes of commercially and recreationally important species of fish and other marine life. Because the Tortugas region is upstream from the Florida Keys reef tract, improvements in the reserve’s fish populations may help sustain fish stocks in the Keys and further north, as more and larger fish produce larvae that are carried away from the reserve on ocean currents. Adult fish may also move to areas outside the reserve as competition for space increases within. These fish then become available to the fishery, an effect known as spillover.

Encompassing 151 square nautical miles in two sections, the Tortugas reserve is the largest of the sanctuary’s groundbreaking network of 24 areas set aside for special protection. Tortugas North protects the extensively deep coral reefs of Tortugas Bank and Sherwood Forest. Tortugas South protects Riley’s Hump, a low profile reef that is a spawning site for grouper, snapper, and valuable deepwater habitat found nowhere else in the sanctuary that supports commercially important golden crab, tilefish, and snowy grouper.

In the journal, Bulletin of Marine Science, analyzing data collected between 1999 and 2004, Drs. Jerald Ault and Steven Smith of the University of Miami and James Bohnsack of NOAA Fisheries Service found increases in size and abundance inside the reserve compared to outside, including key species such as black grouper. “Although the recovery process is still in an early stage, our results after three years are encouraging and suggest that no-take marine reserves, in conjunction with traditional management, can help build sustainable fisheries while protecting the Florida Keys coral reef ecosystem,” said the group in their latest journal publication.

In the journal, Fisheries Bulletin, Michael Burton of NOAA Fisheries documents the reformation of a spawning aggregation of mutton snapper at Riley’s Hump. In 2001, the year the reserve was established, divers surveying Riley’s Hump observed a group of 10 mutton snapper in an apparent spawning aggregation. By 2004, this number had increased to 300. “We conclude from behavior, timing and location that we are observing spawning aggregations of mutton snapper beginning to re-form on Riley’s Hump following more than two decades of intensive exploitation,” wrote Burton and coauthors Kenneth Brennan, Dr. Roldan Munoz, and Richard Parker, Jr.

A NOAA technical memorandum documents evidence of the recovery of shrimp habitat in the former shrimping grounds included in the reserve. “Collections of marine animals from bottom habitat near the northern boundary of Tortugas North strongly suggest that relaxation of trawling pressure has increased the amount and diversity of bottom dwelling marine animals in this region,” wrote Dr. Mark Fonseca, NOAA National Ocean Service principal investigator. “The Tortugas ecological reserve may act as a refuge for the large pink shrimp targeted by the fishery, with samples from the reserve showing a higher density of these crustaceans than samples from areas open to fishing.”

A final report to the sanctuary from the same researchers noted a significant increase in the abundance of large fish in the reserve relative to sites in Dry Tortugas National Park and unprotected areas. “These increasing trends within the Tortugas ecological reserve are surprisingly evident among a variety of prominent species exploited by fisheries, including white grunt, yellowtail snapper, hog fish, and red grouper,” the researchers stated.

In a consensus process that became a model for other efforts worldwide, a 25-member working group including commercial and recreational fishermen, divers, conservationists, researchers, agency representatives, and other concerned citizens designed the reserve.

The Tortugas reserve boasts the highest water quality and the healthiest coral communities in the sanctuary.  But prior to designation as a reserve, even these remote reefs faced threats of overfishing, plus damage from fishing gear and boat anchors. The ecological reserve now fully protects all marine life including fish, coral and other invertebrates, such as shrimp and lobster. Tortugas North remains open to diving, and the sanctuary has installed mooring buoys to protect the fragile coral reefs from anchor damage. Tortugas South is open only to vessels in transit and to researchers and educators holding a sanctuary permit.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects 2,896 square nautical miles of critical marine habitat including coral reef, hard bottom, seagrass meadows, mangrove communities, and sand flats. NOAA and the state of Florida manage the sanctuary.

NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program seeks to increase public awareness of America’s marine resources and maritime heritage by conducting scientific research, monitoring, exploration, and educational programs. Today, the sanctuary program manages 13 national marine sanctuaries and one coral reef ecosystem reserve that together encompass more than 150,000 square miles of America’s oceans and Great Lakes.

NOAA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nation’s coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 60 countries and the European Commission to develop a global network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.

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