New Marine Life in Florida Keys

Coral reef.

Coral reef.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Thanks to conservation efforts by federal, state, and local organizations, there is a resurgence of reef fish and corals in the Dry Tortugas National Park, located about 70 miles west of Key West, Fla.

In 2001, NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary implemented the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, consisting of 151 square nautical miles of protected marine habitat. To monitor the progress of this protected area, which had suffered from overfishing and other environmental changes, the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies funded a marine census to examine how the ecosystem was responding after seven years as a protected area. NOAA is a member is the CIMAS group.

Regional graphic showing bathymetry and circulation.

Regional graphic showing bathymetry and circulation.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

“We are very encouraged to see that stocks have slowly begun to recuperate since implementing ‘no-take’ marine protected areas in the region,” said Jerry Ault, chief scientist on the project and a professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “We are currently crunching the data collected to see what adjustments may need to be made to help guide future management decisions to address the issues of biodiversity protection, restoration of ecological integrity, and fishery management.”

New Life in Study

As a result of this census, divers from six federal agencies and universities (NOAA, U-Miami Rosensteil School, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Park Service, Reef Education and Environmental Foundation, and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington) collected data showing increases in the numbers of snapper, grouper, and corals in the outermost Florida Keys — positive signs of recovery.

Toppled coral.

Toppled coral.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

The census project itself set a record. Over the 20-day study this past summer, 1,710 research dives or studies were made — the most dives for the 38-member team since the project began. There was an average of 86 dives a day from seven feet to 110 feet deep. The divers spent the equivalent of about 46 days underwater.

“We also were looking at how the area has responded to hurricane activity,” said Ault. “This area has been hit by six major hurricanes since 2004, so we can compare that information with what we found this year to see what effect the hurricanes had on the environment.”

The full report is expected to be issued later this month.

In 2007, the TER was complemented by a 50 square nautical mile Research Natural Area — a no-take, no-anchor ecological preserve — in Dry Tortugas National Park.

CIMAS is one of 13 cooperative institutes associated with NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. It combines university research resources with those in NOAA to develop a research center that will help scientists better understand the Earth's oceans and atmosphere. NOAA logo.