A new research report has found that a no-take zone in the Dry Tortugas has not only benefited the fish, but it did not cause the economic hardship on fishermen that was initially expected when the area was set aside in 2001.
Following a nearly yearlong series of workshops seeking public input, the 151-square nautical mile Tortugas Ecological Reserve was designated by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 2001.
Fishermen feared the closing of the area, which is a known snapper and grouper spawning area, would have a negative economic impact on commercial fishing in the Keys. A report released this week shows that the fishermen were not economically impacted by the closure.
The report, "An Integrated Biogeographic Assessment of Reef Fish Populations and Fisheries in Dry Tortugas: Effects of No-take Reserves," is the first study designed to evaluate how the Tortugas Ecological Reserve impacts the living marine resources of the region and the people whose livelihoods are connected to them.
Researchers looked at the log books of commercial and for-hire sportfishermen for five years before and five years after the area was set aside.
Once the reserve was closed, fishermen were able to find other viable fishing spots in the Dry Tortugas, the study states.
"The report shows that commercial fishing can coexist with marine protected areas," said Bob Leeworthy, a NOAA economist who worked on the study. "From a management perspective, it's good news. You can have a viable fishery that runs in harmony with protecting spawning aggregations and ecosystems."
The area was set aside after the federal government held a series of workshops called Tortugas 2000. At the workshops, fishery managers heard from hundreds of commercial and recreational fishermen from the South Florida area. Their input helped frame the closed area.
The process was set up correctly from the beginning with the formation of working groups, Leeworthy said. Fishery managers took a considerable amount of public input and built consensus.
"Nobody likes to see closures, but after a thorough assessment of the area they were able to come up with acceptable boundaries that protect several species of fish," Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association Executive Director Bill Kelly said. "Fishermen over the years have made adjustments and found other areas where they were able to fish sustainably."
Key West commercial fishery landings had an estimated value of $56 million in 2011, up from $40 million in 2001, according to NOAA's Fisheries of the United States reports. Ocean recreation and tourism support approximately 33,000 jobs in the Florida Keys.
The report's analysis of long-term socioeconomic and scientific information also found:
• Overfished species such as black and red grouper, yellowtail and mutton snapper increased in presence, abundance and size inside the reserve and throughout the region;
• Annual gatherings of spawning mutton snapper, once thought to be wiped out from overfishing, began to reform inside the reserve;
• Commercial catches of reef fish in the region increased, and continue to do so.
"The reserve is a production source for both the East and West Coast of Florida, as well as the rest of the United States," said Jerry Ault, a University of Miami professor who has done extensive research in the Tortugas. "The rates of increase in fish stocks are in excess of what people predicted they would be."