Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary
2008 Condition Report

Photo of sea goddess nudibranch

Response to Pressures

This section describes current or proposed responses to pressures. Current responses are based on implementation of the sanctuary’s 2006 management plan, which encompasses those specific strategies.


Anchoring can adversely impact not only the non-regenerative limestone ledges, but can harm the benthic fauna that are attached to it. Many of the large and well-established invertebrates (corals and sponges) are the most reproductively viable members of the population and can be easily removed by an anchor or chain. In response to these threats, NOAA established an anchoring prohibition in the Gray’s Reef Final Management Plan that became effective in February 2007. Anchoring is now prohibited in the sanctuary, except in emergencies. Compliance is expected to result in improvements to the hard substrate and attached living marine resources associated with the bottom features. Gray’s Reef is also undertaking an outreach campaign to alert the public and users to the new regulations through communication with user groups, marinas the media, and on-water patrols.

Diver Impacts

Along with anchoring, improper scuba diving techniques may be responsible for damage to densely and sparsely colonized live bottom at Gray’s Reef, such as dislodgement of sponges, corals and other invertebrates. Studies in Australia (Harriott et al. 1997) and the Florida Keys (Talge 1990) have documented diver impacts including reef-damaging contacts with flippers and gloves. While the impacts do not seem to be significant at this time for Gray’s Reef, growing public awareness of the sanctuary as a diving destination may continue to increase diving activities and the probability of inadvertent damage or disturbance to reef communities.

In addition to the allowable gear fishing regulation, which prohibits “taking by hand, any marine organism, or any part thereof living or dead,” reducing diver impacts through educational efforts will help protect marine resources at Gray’s Reef. Education and outreach programs featuring printed materials and radio spots will be initiated to increase public awareness about the importance of good diving techniques, Gray’s Reef regulations that guide diver activities, and etiquette for interacting with marine animals. The campaign will coordinate with PADI’s Project Aware and will include information about the value of the reef, rules and regulations, and diver responsibilities. Materials will be distributed at dive shops and at public events and presentations.

Recreational Fishing

The abundance and diversity of marine fish species at Gray’s Reef are critical components of the sanctuary’s ecosystem. Based on current socioeconomic studies (Ehler and Leeworthy 2002, Bird et al. 2001) and sanctuary surveys (GRNMS unpublished data) of visitor use, recreational fishing activities have increased significantly at the sanctuary in the past 25 years. The trends in use are expected to continue as population increases along the Georgia coast, the popularity of recreational fishing grows and boating and fish-finding technology improves. In response to this, NOAA promulgated an “allowable gear” regulation for the Gray’s Reef sanctuary that limits fishing to use of rod and reel, hand line, and spearfishing gear without powerheads. The intent of the regulation is to eliminate future use of a variety of allowed fishing gear that would have detrimental effects on habitats and marine resources (e.g., traps, bandit gear, pots and nets of various kinds).

NOAA proposed prohibiting all spearfishing in the Gray’s Reef sanctuary in the draft management plan, but deferred that decision until additional information could be gathered. A socioeconomic assessment of georgia offshore spearfishing was conducted in fall 2007. Results from the study indicate that no dive charters made spearfishing trips to the sanctuary in recent years and none were planned in the future. A scuba club reported one spearfishing trip (one day, six divers) a year to the sanctuary. A small amount (no more than 1 percent of all fishing) of private boat-based spearfishing at the sanctuary can be assumed, but has not been documented. The combination of no charter spearfishing activity at the sanctuary and the abundant substitution opportunities lead to the conclusion that a prohibition on spearfishing at the sanctuary would result in no measurable economic impact (Ehler pers. comm.). The sanctuary is currently reassessing spearfishing in light of this new information.

Significant management and research questions still exist, however, that can only be addressed by establishing a control (research) area within the boundaries. The concept of a marine research area was evaluated by a working group of the Sanctuary Advisory Council and NOAA. The proposal was further explored through a public process in 2008 and the public comments are being considered by the Sanctuary Advisory Council for recommendations to NOAA. Among the research questions that may be addressed with establishment of a research area are the potential impacts of bottom fishing (recreational rod and reel) on the sanctuary's living marine resources. The research area may allow only restricted use, such as fishing for coastal pelagic species, which would allow science to be conducted in a marine environment free of most extractive activities.

Marine Debris

The accumulation of debris in the marine environment is an increasing problem worldwide. Marine debris is aes­thetically displeasing, can be a nuisance to boaters and the shipping industry, and can negatively impact marine biota. The primary focus of Gray’s Reef sanctuary activities to address this issue will be through outreach, education and monitoring. The sanctuary will continue outreach to the public and users on the impacts of marine debris. Outreach efforts will focus on developing and distributing printed materials and targeted radio messaging during peak boating activity in the spring and summer months. In addition, scientists with NOAA will continue quantifying and characterizing marine debris in Gray’s Reef and addressing other gaps in information needed to allow the site to better manage these impacts. Focused removal of marine debris will continue using the efforts of volunteer and staff divers. Scientific divers are already noting, photographing and removing, whenever possible, debris found in the sanctuary.

Because there is increased concern about materials deposited outside Gray’s Reef drifting into and damaging sanctuary resources, regulatory authority has been clarified in the final management plan, but no new regulations are anticipated at this time.

Research Activities

Numerous research activities take place in Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary and in some cases these activities may result in impacts to sanctuary resources.Regulations give the National Marine Sanctuary System the authority to allow certain activities that would otherwise be prohibited (but offer some other benefit to the sanctuary) through the issuance of permits. New Gray’s Reef sanctuary regulations make the permitting process clearer in terms of the scope, purpose, manner, terms and conditions of permits issued. The sanctuary will continue the permitting program in order to monitor and address any impacts on sanctuary resources from research activities. Sanctuary staff will also continue to recommend locations outside the sanctuary for research projects that are incompatible with the site’s mission of resource protection.

Invasive Species

Because of the potential impact on native species, Gray’s Reef sanctuary staff will continue monitoring and looking for signs of invasive species (i.e., lionfishes) in the sanctuary or encroachment of species known to be outside the sanctuary. Due to the increased potential for invasive larval organisms to travel directly to the bottom on a buoy line, the sanctuary is also considering means to prevent encroachment by using chain instead of natural or synthetic mooring lines on the corner marker buoys. Sanctuary staff will also continue collaboration with Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), which conducts annual fish surveys and helps to monitor for invasive species. The sanctuary will also consider removal of invasive species while they are still in low enough abundance to allow an effective response.

Coastal Development

As coastal development increases in coming years, the potential exists for continued and increasing levels of land-based pollutants to impact sanctuary resources. Gray’s Reef sanctuary staff will continue to monitor for nutrient levels and contaminants associated with increased coastal and inland development. NOAA scientists will also continue monitoring the ecological condition of benthic fauna and the sediment quality in the sanctuary.