Remediation of Coral Reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Tech Report 405, Inc
April 8, 2014
Coral reefs are an integral part of the world ecosystem, but are in danger from human
actions. Coral destruction is caused by changes in the environment which can lead to mass
bleaching incidents. Bleaching is the process of expelling symbiotic zooxanthelle bacteria and
weakens the coral leaving it susceptible to breakage and disease. In order to protect corals from
the detrimental environmental impacts they have been subjected to, the United States created
fourteen national marine sanctuaries which provide a safe haven for those corals in danger, one
of which, is located in the Florida Keys.
Coral reefs are a vital piece of the earth’s ecosystem, but due to changing atmospheric
conditions they are steadily declining in health and population throughout the world. The
decline of coral reefs has lead to the establishment of various governmental procedures in an
attempt to aid in the protection and preservation of the remaining reef systems including the
creation of the National Marine Sanctuary Program in the United States.Under this program,
there are numerous federally designated sanctuaries located along the coasts of the United
States, including the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary which is located off the coast of
Florida and Mexico.
The coral reefs in this community face various threats such as; trawling, damage from
boat anchors, ecotourism, poaching, and bleaching due to pollution, and increased salinity and
ocean temperature from climate change. Although all forms of coral damage are important,
bleaching is the most detrimental to coral populations.
Coral bleaching is the process by which the coral expels Zooxanthelle algae from its
tissues (NOAA). The zooxanthelle live symbiotically within the coral and help by feeding the
corals through the process of photosynthesis (Littler 2006). Once expelled, the corals must work
harder to obtain the same amount of food necessary for its life processes and growth. The coral
can survive a bleaching event, but are significantly weakened require immediate remediation
efforts if they are expected to recover. Not only are the corals required to work harder, but they
also become more susceptible to mortality once bleached (Glynn 1996).
Bleaching is caused by increased stressors in the environment; it can be something as
slight as a one to two degree change in ocean temperature or salinity. With the increasing effects
of climate change, coral bleaching is becoming more common and harder to counteract or
Trawling is another form of coral damage, but is caused directly by human actions.
Trawling is a process used by large fishing corporations. The process usually consists of
dragging large, heavy nets across the ocean floor pulled along by a boat above the water, and
aided by the use of wheels and large metal plates on the sea floor (Bottom Trawling). When
dragging across the bottom of the sea, the nets destroy any life forms rooted to the bottom, and
catch fish species other than the one’s intended. The excess fish are usually thrown back, but
after that trauma they have a high rate of mortality. The combination of physical destruction of
corals from the nets and the decrease in species on reefs both cause problems within the reef
system as well as the ocean community as a whole.
Similar to the process of trawling is destruction from anchors. Coral provides a stable
holdfast for the anchors, but cuts from embedded anchors cause deterioration and prevents
growth in the corals. Constant breakage of coral over time can cause irreparable breakage. Due
to the slow growth rate of coral, any damage inflicted can take years to repair itself to the point
it was at prior to the damage.
Ecotourism can either help or harm the corals. If done correctly with the proper
guidance, ecotourism can lead to greater appreciation and protection of corals, but without
guidance tourists can cause damage to the reefs. Tourists do not always realize the detrimental
effects of breaking pieces of coral or how delicate the structures are. Accidently bumping into
corals can cause breakage which is difficult for the coral itself to repair. This is different than on
land, if an individual bumps into a tree, the tree is fine and the person is generally hurt more
than the tree itself, but coral is not strong in the same way the trees are. This is also where the
problem with accidental poaching is encountered. Tourists’ breaking off pieces of the reef as
souvenirs causes enough damage to kill the parent coral. In direct relation to accidental
poaching, is intentional poaching which occurs when coral or wildlife is intentionally taken for
sale or personal purposes.
Pollution is caused by increased ecotourism and general wastes from every day human
activities. Pollution can be in the form of manmade materials in the ocean or from processes
such as run-off. Plastic bags can cause suffocation of corals and fish which depletes the oxygen
supply stunting growth, and if depletion occurs over a long enough period of time, it will cause
mortality. Run-off from farms containing fertilizers can also cause negative effects in the coral’s
environment. While it will help add nutrients to the system and increase algae growth, too
much can cause algae blooms which can block sunlight to reefs thus depleting the amount of
photosynthesis and reducing available nutrients to corals.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is one of fourteen areas across the country
designated as part of the National Marine Sanctuary program,which is a Federal Government
initiative. The main objective of this program is to preserve and protect natural resources in
certain coastal locations that support high levels of biodiversity.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was designated as a protected region in
1990, and covers an area of just under 3,000 square miles of water surrounding the islands of the
Florida Keys. The main objective of this facility, and the overall objective of the Sanctuary
program, is to protect the marine resources that exist within its’ boundaries.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, however,also has a more localized goal of
generating an interest in those marine resources amongst the local people. As a secondary goal,
the Sanctuary attempts to facilitate an understanding of the importance of maintaining the
biodiversity that is found in the area, as well as both the potential and realized impacts on the
Figure 1. Map of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Aside from working with the local people, the sanctuary administers a wide variety of
projects to benefit the local ecosystem. Most of their current efforts focus on the protection and
conservation of the local Keys’ plants and animals, with special attention paid to the coral reef
communities, as they are a critical component to the area’s ecosystem. Many of their projects
attempt to protect the most coveted local plants of the area, including mangroves and seagrass,
due to the significant role they play in the Keys’ ecosystem and economy.
The Sanctuary monitors the quality and condition of the ocean water and the seafloor, as
well as incorporate shipwrecks and artificial reefs to encourage species inhabitation. A resulting
increase in species inhabitation would benefit the biodiversity and health of the sanctuary and
ocean as a whole.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary also offers visitors many recreational
opportunities within its’ boundaries that encourage people to take an interest in the
surrounding aquatic ecosystem. Some of the activities available include swimming, snorkeling,
and fishing. These activities are offered in the theory that a positive ecotourism experience can
lead to increased interest and support of coral reef systems.
The sanctuary has many programs for the benefit of corals including; an Injury
Assessment, Research & Monitoring, Coral Rescue, Coral Nursery, and Coral Restoration
program, the latter of which is the most popular. During the restoration process, scientists work
towards the goal of restoring the coral and surrounding area to a healthy condition as it would
be without disturbance as quickly as possible. These efforts typically involve cleaning up debris
from the site, and/or reattaching pieces of the coral with a special cement or epoxy that hardens
underwater and eventually dissolves once the coral is secure again. Restoration efforts are a
critical component to the activities performed at the Sanctuary due to the highly public nature
of the reefs. Scientists monitor the sites for years after project completion in the hopes that they
can gain valuable knowledge on the effectiveness of a various restoration techniques, as well as
the long-term impact on the surrounding Keys’ area.
The Sanctuary expands is restoration projects expand into the Artificial Reef program.
An artificial reef is a structure of safe man-made materials placed on the ocean floor to attract
marine species to the area. It encourages species inhabitation and coral growth. As partof this
program, the Sanctuary utilizes previously sunken shipwrecks and other debris that reside on
the seafloor within its boundaries which will not harm animals, but will provide a safe and
porous surface for reef expansion.
The Artificial Reef program at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is unique
because no other designated National Marine Sanctuary is authorized to have such a program.
Artificial Reef programs are discouraged at the other National Sanctuary sites due to the strict
regulations in place regarding what is allowed to be on the ocean floor within the sanctuary
boundaries. The Florida Keys Sanctuary was allowed to continue their programdue to the
amount of shipwrecks and other objects in the sanctuary waters prior to its’ Federal designation
as a protected region in 1990. The ecosystem (and the natural resources) of the Florida Keys
area, and the tourism that it generates, holds a large stake in the local economy. Many people’s
livelihoods depend on this location retaining its’ high level of biodiversity, though they might
not even be aware of it. The culture, and the general atmosphere of the Keys, is famous for
being a beautiful, tropical setting that is full of life which is important to the people in the
Understanding of the Problem
Since 1990 when congress designated the Florida Keys a National Marine Sanctuary, a
close partnership between the federal government and the State of Florida has developed
Sanctuary planning methods and management plans (Suman 1997). There are several different
organizations, committees, and groups thatare involved with the decision process when it
comes to the well being of the Sanctuary and the surrounding community. These groups vary
from the federal government all the way down to local committees with numerous others in
between. The management plan and interagency memoranda of agreement visibly partitions
government functions such as; enforcement, permitting, research, and education between
Federal and State agencies (Suman 1997). The Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary represents a great
example of integrated coastal zone management amongst varied agencies in an effort to protect
Starting at the top of the decision authority ladder, the National Marine Sanctuary Actis
a piece of legislation that provides the Sanctuary with a foundation for Federal and State
Figure 2. A shipsunkinKeyLargo Floridashowsthe
biodiversityonintroducedstructurestocoral reef systems.
coordination in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (Suman 1997). The policy is to
develop and implement coordinated plans for the protection and managementwith appropriate
Federal, State, and local agencies as well as Native American organizations, International
organizations, and other private and public interests groups concerned with the health and
resilience of the Sanctuary (Suman 1997).
After the National Marine Sanctuary Act, the Interagency ManagementCommittee has
control. It is compromised of state agencies that head coastal zone management with the
assistance of Federal authorities (Suman 1997). The Interagency Management Committee
represents four key executive offices including the Florida Department of Natural Resources,
the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, the Florida Departmentof Community
Affairs, and the Governor’s office (Suman 1997).
Beneath the Interagency Management Committee is the Interagency Core Group, which
gives a voice to Florida’s government in the creation of the Florida Keys National Marine
Sanctuary (Suman 1997). Resource managers from Federal, State,and local agencies formed a
Central Government Sanctuary Planning Body to prioritize management strategies that
developed from public scoping meetings, coordinate management options, and develop
coherent options for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (Suman 1997).
Following the Interagency Management Committee is the Monroe County government,
whom, with assistance from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, has focused their
efforts on protecting benthic habitats,improving water quality, and implementing storm water
and wastewater infrastructure (Sleaseman, 2009). Monroe County has also created no discharge
zones, and manages sensitive land habitat to promote the well being of the Sanctuary
Next in line is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which
participated in the development of the management plan and environmental impact statement
(Morin, 2001). It also took the lead on responsibilities such as implementation of zoning,
education & outreach, enforcement, regulation,and research (Morin, 2001). NOAA provides
the bulk of funding for the ecological reserve, and special use areas within the Sanctuary
Last is the Sanctuary Advisory Council, which assists the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration in the development and implementation of management plans to
ensure that the interests of all user groups are adequately represented in the Sanctuary planning
process and implementation of the plan (Morin, 2001). The Sanctuary Advisory Council allows
the public to participate in the management of the Sanctuary while also receiving education on
the Sanctuary (Morin, 2001).
The locals living around the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are very active in
the community and decision making process associated with the sanctuary by becoming a
committee member. The committee members’ jobs range from advising the government both at
the state and federal levels as to what the regulation should be for the sanctuary, to educating
the public, and exploring ways the government can protect the reef community.
The involvement of the public in the actual creation of regulations can be initiated in
different ways, including consensus based approaches or the traditional top-down approach
which consists of the government releasing the first draft of regulations. Once the first draft has
been out for a given amount of time, the publics’ input is gathered through either written
responses or a public hearing. Then, the government takes the public comments, redrafts the
regulations and releases the final draft. Different approaches were taken in the creation of the
Water Quality Protection Plan, the designation of No Discharge Zones with state lands in
Monroe County and the sanctuary, and the addition of the Tortugas Marine Sanctuary to the
Florida Keys Sanctuary.
One of the more traditional top-down successes was the creation of the Water Quality
Protection Program (WQPP). The WQPP was created atthe same time as the sanctuary. It was
drafted by the Secretary of Commerce, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and
the Environmental Protection Agency. Correction plans for pollution across the sanctuary were
created and control measures were put in place. The plan also created a Water Quality Steering
Committee which creates reports for Congress on the progress, modifications needed, and
recommendations suggested of the sanctuary and water quality (Morin 2001).This group is
made up of local government, federal government, and three concerned citizens and led to a
decrease in water pollution as well as an increase in protection for the water in and around the
sanctuary (Morin 2001).
Another success of the sanctuary was the creation of No-Discharge Zones. The No
Discharge zones were created in 2002 with help from the sanctuary,local and federal
governments. The impetus for this action was the release of the Report of the Water Quality
Protection Program in 1996 (Delaney 2003). This report blamed the dumping of wastes into the
sanctuary for an increase in pollution in the area. Thus in 2002, the Florida state governor, with
support from the Board of County Commissioners in Monroe County requested that the EPA
designate the state waters as No-Discharge Zones (NOAA Press Release). This process only
involved the public who sat on the Water Quality Protection Program Steering Committee,and
the requests for public comment. The requests for public comment showed that the No
Discharge Zones were supported by a vast majority of the public, 97 percent (Delaney 2003).
This model needs to be taken up by other national marine sanctuaries, in order to ensure the
best protection for the wildlife intended to be safe in these areas.
Due to the delicate nature of the marine life, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
has implemented many regulations for the protection of the species living there. The enforced
regulations put a limit on the interactions tourists and locals can have with the area protected
by the sanctuary. Regulations forbid touching the coral or wildlife in anyway and go so far as to
specify against moving, removing, taking, injuring, breaking, cutting, or possessing the coral
and wildlife protected by the sanctuary. On top of regulations for personal interactions with
coral and wildlife, the rules extend to cover pollution and boating regulations. Nowhere in the
sanctuary can untreated sewage, trash, exotic species or electrical charges be released. These
rules help to protect not only the small amount of ocean space covered by this sanctuary, but
also the rest of the ocean by preventing the spread of pollution.
The rules which effect people the most are in regards to boating and diving regulations.
Vessels cannot be operated in a manner that could strike or injure coral, seagrass, or other
immobile organisms which are attached to the seabed; this includes anchoring on living coral in
water less than 40 feet deep, although anchoring on hard bottom is allowed (68B-42 F.A.C.).
These regulations place a restriction on the public, but are for the benefit of the ocean
community, and only apply to the area covered by the sanctuary. A full text version of the
Sanctuary’s regulations can be found at www.ecfr.gov.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is a supreme example of the type of
protection that can be offered to wildlife of an area, especially when the local community is
supportive. Programs such as this should be implemented in other areas to the protection,
rehabilitation, and maintenance of natural wildlife.
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