Sanctuary staff plies Tortugas in review of management plan

A team of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary scientists, joined by colleagues from partner agencies, is halfway into a 10-day research trip aiming to better understand where fish spawn in the 174-square-mile Tortugas Ecological Reserve.

The team, which set out last Thursday on the 157-foot research ship the Nancy Foster, will create high-resolution maps of the sea floor and use acoustic sonar to search for fish “in order to determine what different spawning sites have in common,” says the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the sanctuary’s parent agency.

The expedition was launched in response to comments received during a recent round of public review meetings scrutinizing the multi-year updates of the sanctuary’s management plan.

“During the recent public regulatory review, many stakeholders said that we need to understand and protect our fishing spawning areas better,” sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton said. “The scientific results of this cruise will help inform the public and guide management decisions as we continue to look at sanctuary marine zones and regulations.”

Sanctuary researchers, along with counterparts from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, state Department of Environmental Protection, the College of Charleston and NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Sciences, will conduct visual surveys to validate equipment readings.

Plans also call for deploying 74 “acoustic receivers” networked in the Tortugas area, about 70 miles west of Key West, to “detect acoustically tagged fish when they pass within range.”

The goal of the public review process — expected to take two to three years, “to determine whether existing sanctuary boundaries, regulations and marine zones are adequate to address threats to marine resources, and if new or expanded protection is needed to better address these threats.”

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects more than 3,300 square miles of marine habitat, including coral reef, hard bottom, seagrass meadows, mangrove patches and sand flats.

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