Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary managers are considering expanding sanctuary boundaries, extending federal protection to more coral reef and fish spawning areas.
Managers are reviewing the sanctuary's management plan to determine whether changes are needed. Last week, the Sanctuary Advisory Council agreed to have its three working groups review sensitive coral reef and fish habitat near the boundaries of the 2,900-square-nautical-mile sanctuary to determine whether they should be incorporated into the sanctuary. Right now, the areas are being referred to as "study areas."
If the working groups agree to include the areas in the sanctuary, public comment would be considered before a decision is made.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission scientist John Hunt has presented data to the advisory council detailing areas outside the sanctuary to consider. Those areas include a deepwater coral reef 40 miles west of Fort Jefferson called Pulley Ridge, an area west of Tortugas Bank and the area at the north end the Tortugas South Ecological Reserve.
Scientists say Pulley Ridge is home to some of the most pristine coral colonies in the Gulf of Mexico. After sanctuary and Mote Marine Laboratory researchers conducted extensive research of Pulley Ridge in 2004, federal fishery managers designated it as a "habitat area of particular concern," a designation that restricts anchoring and trawling. Tortuga Bank and the Ecological Reserve in the Dry Tortugas are known grouper and snapper spawning areas.
"Outside of the Tortugas, the boundaries have not been looked at in 15 years," Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton said. "There has been a lot of new science on some of the areas that are resources of national importance."
Including those areas in the sanctuary would not mean they would be closed to fishing and diving, as only 6 percent of the sanctuary is closed to such activities and 4 percent of that is in the remote Dry Tortugas.
Several public comments received by the sanctuary requested the boundaries be moved as far north as the waters off Collier County. Others recommended including the Islamorada and Marathon humps, which are prime sport fishing spots.
Some of those comments appear to have come from people wanting to keep oil and natural gas drilling farther away from the Keys. Sanctuary Advisory Council member and Nature Conservancy project coordinator Chris Bergh agreed that it would keep oil rigs out of the waters off Collier and Monroe counties, as drilling is prohibited in marine sanctuaries.
The sanctuary and Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge managers are both reviewing their management plans and are scheduled to implement changes by 2015.