Management of Coral Reefs

photo of red fish under sprawling coral

Agencies have a number of statutory authorities to potentially address vessel-related damages to coral reefs.

The most robust authorities are found within protected areas, such as national marine sanctuaries. However, other authorities are available if a ship grounding includes oil pollution or hazardous waste discharges or the threat of these.

Under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (16 U.S.C. 1431 et seq.) the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has the authority to comprehensively protect discrete, designated areas of the marine environment. The Act gives NOAA the authority to take several actions in the case of ship groundings on or other damages to coral reefs. For example, it states that the U.S. may recover response costs and damages resulting from destruction, loss, or injury of any national marine sanctuary resource. Any vessel that destroys, causes loss of, or injures a sanctuary resource shall be liable in rem to the U.S. NOAA may use response costs and damages recovered to finance response actions and damage assessments; to restore, replace, or acquire equivalent resources; and to manage and improve national marine sanctuaries. Civil penalties up to $109,000 per day per violation of the Act or any regulation or permit issued under the Act may be collected.
Regulations and Management Tools

The National Marine Sanctuaries Act gives NOAA the authority to establish regulations necessary and reasonable to implement the Act. Several regulations are the same across sites. Others are tailored to the diverse resources and needs of individual sanctuaries. The development of effective and sustainable management strategies requires understanding of information gained through objective scientific studies. The following are examples of unique management strategies used to protect coral reefs in the national marine sanctuaries and the role science has played in making policy and management decisions.

National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa

Research shows that the reefs in American Samoa, including those in Fagetele Bay National Marine Sanctuary, are overfished. Though possessing or using spearguns is prohibited in the sanctuary, the commercial scuba spearfishery is suspected to play a large role in the overfishing. Data indicating overfishing spurred efforts to develop the existing contract with the local Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources and the National Marine Fisheries Service to patrol the site and enforce regulations. The sanctuary is also working with the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources in the development of regulations to prohibit spearfishing in waters outside the sanctuary. If the local government goes forward with these regulations, the impacts could positively affect reef ecosystem health throughout American Samoa, including in the sanctuary.

The use of poisons and explosives to harvest fish in the sanctuary is also prohibited. Sanctuary staff collaborate with the local landowners to control access to the site. This collaboration helps filter out fishermen who would enter Fagatele Bay via land to dynamite or poison fish. Additionally, public outreach and education are used to highlight management issues and encourage regulatory compliance.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

This sanctuary uses marine zoning as a management tool to protect the biological diversity and integrity of the sanctuary. The zoning is intended to disperse uses of the resources in order to reduce user conflicts and lessen the concentrated impact to marine organisms on heavily used reefs. Zoning is an innovative approach to marine management and thus must be evaluated for effectiveness. The sanctuary, partners, and volunteers are rigorously monitoring the abundance and size of organisms as well as other parameters both inside and outside the zones. In 2002, results from inside the zones will be compared with those from outside the zones and used by managers to decide the fate of zoning as a marine management tool.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is also testing the use of artificial reefs as a management tool. A shipwreck trail was established in July 1999. It offers a thematic map of significant, accessible, commonly-dived shipwrecks and artificial reefs throughout the sanctuary's waters. It is hoped that artificial reefs will divert some of the fishing and diving pressure from natural reefs. It has also been reported that artificial reefs increase productivity in an area by providing additional substrate. However, some argue that it is not production that is being seen but rather the aggregation of fauna from natural reefs to artificial reefs. The effectiveness of artificial reefs as a management tool will be monitored and evaluated ecologically as well as socioeconomically to gain insight to outstanding questions and to assist in future management decisions.

Other management decisions relying on the extensive coral, water quality, fish, and benthic monitoring data collected in the sanctuary include determination of when and where permits should be issued for consumptive coral research and boundaries for a future ecological reserve in the Tortugas.

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

Due to the high levels of hydrocarbon exploration and development in the northwest Gulf of Mexico, the management of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary interacts regularly with the oil industry and the Minerals Management Service. Protective regulations have been developed in response to results of previous and on-going research and monitoring. Research in the early 1970s identified the sensitive nature of the fauna and flora on the Flower Garden Banks. In 1974, in consultation with scientists, industry, and others, the Bureau of Land Management (a portion of which later became the Minerals Management Service) designated no-activity zones on and around the banks to control potentially damaging industrial activity. Within the no-activity zones, drilling, discharging, platform or pipeline placement, and other activities that might disturb benthic resources are prohibited. Four-mile zones around the banks were also established by the Minerals Management Service. Within these zones, the shunting of drilling muds and cuttings through downpipes to an appropriate distance, not more than 10 m above the seabed, is required. According to research on physical oceanography around the banks, this should eliminate the threat of smothering of corals by sediment plumes or exposure to toxic fractions of drill muds within the shallow portions of the banks.

Because of the apparent effectiveness of the no-activity and four mile zones, when the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary was designated in 1992 the regulations adopted did not alter Minerals Management Service stipulations. Long-term monitoring at the site continues to show no significant changes in environmental quality that could be attributed to industrial activity in the region, and thus, sanctuary regulations remain relatively unchanged.

Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary

Anchor damage and indications of overfishing have been seen in the sanctuary. Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary staff are using an offshore radar system along with Coast Guard auxiliary overflights to monitor vessel activity in the sanctuary. Additional monitoring efforts are then directed to areas of heavy use. Data collected will be used in conjunction with public meetings to provide input to the management plan revision process. During the process, marine zoning will likely be considered as a management tool.

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary

This sanctuary includes waters with coral reef habitat but is currently managed as a single species sanctuary (i.e. managed for humpback whales and their habitat). Therefore, the state of Hawaii rather than NOAA has jurisdiction over the reefs in the sanctuary. To learn more about the management of Hawaii's coral reefs, please see the state's Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Aquatic Resources Web site or request Hawaii's State of the Reefs, 1998 report from the state. Future research by the Hawaii sanctuary will include studies on the importance of coral reefs to whale habitat.