A proposed plan expanding the boundaries of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and updating a management plan put in place a quarter century ago is now in the hands of federal authorities.
With the time for comments over, officials will now grapple with tens of thousands of comments on a plan that has drawn fans and haters alike to tougher rules to deal with a growing population and deteriorating environmental conditions. . Among the most controversial changes would be marine reserves near reefs hammered by coral disease, warmer oceans and heavier shipping traffic.
“We love it to death,” said Jerry Lorenz, sanctuary advisory board member and director of Florida Audubon Research. “So we need to put in more protective areas, which still allow people to really enjoy the resource, but also protect it so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy it too.”
A report 2011 prompted the update when it found widespread changes to the 3,800 square mile sanctuary that stretches just north of the Ragged Keys in Biscayne Bay to the Dry Tortugas. Decades of polluted runoff from land and other flushes have led to declining water quality. Reefs are in distress from the continued loss of corals to disease and bleaching events caused by warming oceans. The number of boats plying the seagrass beds and grinding the weeds has increased.
And although the population and the amount of fishing have declined since the 1990s, the report found that an increase in recreational boating and commercial fishing, combined with a range of human activities, is driving changes, from construction of highways to marine debris and development.
One of the most concerning changes, Lorenz said, has been the damage to reefs.
“The fact that we only have 5% of our coral cover left is devastating to me. Going out on the reef, diving and diving and seeing gray where I saw those brilliant colors,” he said.
Changes due to sea level rise have also been profound, with flats under deeper water and mangroves unable to keep pace with sea level rise.
“You come to these shallow flats where people fish and which used to be exposed with every tide. And now it’s very rare to see water that low,” said Lorenz, a marine biologist who has studied changes in Florida Bay for more than 25 years. “Mangroves have changed. Some areas have died due to rising sea levels. Elsewhere, mangroves have expanded. So the map, the physical map, has changed since I’ve been here.
Under the scheme, sanctuary boundaries would expand by about a thousand square miles. The eastern boundary would move west where existing maritime regulations already exclude large vessels. This would make the rules easier for sailors. To the south, the western boundary would shift to encompass Pulley Ridge. The deep-water reef near Dry Tortugas and about 50 miles from Key West is the only one in the continental United States. Because the Florida Loop current passes nearby, scientists believe it could be a source of fish larvae and other marine life for the waters around the Keys. The changes would also create an anchor-free zone around the reef.
The plan would also radically change the rules by creating five types of marine areas. A new restoration area would be created to protect 1.5 square miles of active reef restoration and 23 designated wildlife management areas. Ecological reserves and special use areas would be combined into a single conservation area. And the preservation zones would be established with the addition of two, the deletion of two, the combination of two and the expansion of three; designating different management areas.
Restrictions on discharges from cruise ships, larger ships passing through the sanctuary, would also change and prevent ships from flushing anything other than cooling water. This would mean more gray water from sinks, washing machines or swab decks. It would also ban ballast water, which has been accused of spreading pathogens like hard coral disease.
Three years ago, when the plan was first unveiled as a restoration plan, some boating groups and fishermen bitterly condemned the new protections. More than a thousand people attended Key West meeting, Key West lawyer David Paul Horan threatening to stage another Conch Rebellion, like the one he helped organize in the 1980s after federal agents set up a roadblock to catch illegal immigrants.
Not everyone will be happy with the end result, said Lorenz, who wishes the reserves had been expanded further, with restrictions on fishing and diving to give marine life a chance to recover.
“But as the sanctuary has said many times, you can’t always get what you want,” he said. “With this diverse group of people, there are going to be trade-offs. And so no one will be 100% happy with this plan and no one will be 100% disgusted.”
Once the new rules are finalized, they will undergo another review to consider environmental impacts. The state of Florida, which co-manages fishing regulations, must also sign some rules. If the process goes on schedule, Lorenz said the new management plan will likely come into effect next year or in 2024.