Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary gets mixed review in condition report

The first comprehensive condition report of the vast Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary shows that while some management steps have helped the fragile ecosystem, there is still plenty to do to aid decimated coral reefs, improve water quality, protect and restore habitat and help some marine species recover from overfishing.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 108-page report, released Thursday, has “some sobering news, but also some good news,” according to Billy Causey, southeast regional director of the National Marine Sanctuaries — which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The good news includes some improvement in water quality. The sanctuary’s 2,900 nautical square miles have become less of a dumping ground for human waste. New regulations prohibit discharge of sewage from marine sanitation devices within the protected federal and state waters of the sanctuary.

Controversial no-take zones also have shown promise, with an increase in the size and population of some fish species and spiny lobster in or near those zones.

“We are seeing a number of larger fish, particularly in the ecological reserves of Western Sambo [a few miles off Key West] and the Tortugas [70 miles west of Key West],” Causey said.

But there is plenty of “sobering news” for the waters that support a commercial fishing industry and annually lure millions of tourists, including recreational fishermen, boaters, divers and those who just like to lie on the beach and gawk at the ocean’s beauty.

“We all understand that a healthy marine ecosystem is a healthy economy,” said Sean Morton, superintendent of the Keys’ protected waters, one of the largest of the country’s 13 marine sanctuaries.

More than 33,000 Keys jobs, 58 percent of the local economy and $2.3 billion in annual sales are connected to the island chain’s unique geography, bordering both the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

But those waters have been heavily exploited by man for more than 100 years. The sanctuary, home to about 6,000 species of marine life, has been in place only since 1990.

“Recovery of the ecosystem’s health takes time,” Morton said.

The report lists 17 questions used to rate the condition and trends of water, habitat, living resources and marine archaeological resources, such as shipwrecks. None of the conditions rated at the highest level, “good,” and many “appeared to be declining.”

One is the health of key species. Corals have been hit hard by disease and bleaching. Sea grass, sea turtles, sponges and queen conch also are struggling.

But there’s hope. Ken Nedimyer and others in the Keys are working on pioneering efforts to grow coral in underwater nurseries to replace the important reef building blocks, which have drastically declined since the 1970s.

Still, recovery of most aspects of the ecosystem is hampered by continuing local pressures that include commercial and recreational fishing, harmful algal blooms, marine debris, vessel groundings, new exotic species such as the lionfish and boat traffic.

Global climate change, rising sea levels and ocean acidification also are growing problems, Causey said.

“One of the greatest things in this report ... is that we are starting to see a higher level of consciousness in the real problems confronting the coral reef and not skipping around climate change,” Causey said. “We have to address that at a local and regional scale.”

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