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New rules and new boundaries for Florida Keys sanctuary heading into final stretch

A diver takes pictures using an underwater camera on a tripod. A fish swims over coral in the foreground.
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
A NOAA diver in 2014 photographs a reef inside the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. New rules would help the reef recover from impacts like the stony coral disease that has since spread across the sanctuary.

Federal officials are now considering thousands of comments as they finalize the first update in a quarter century to rules that govern the marine 3,800-square mile marine sanctuary.

A proposed plan to expand the boundaries of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and update a management plan put into place a quarter century ago is now in the hands of federal officials.

With the time to comment over, officials will now wrestle with tens of thousands of comments on a plan that drew fans and foes over stricter rules to deal with a swelling population and worsening environmental conditions. Among the most contentious changes would be marine preserves near reefs hammered by coral disease, warmer oceans and busier boat traffic.

“We’re basically loving it to death,” said Jerry Lorenz, a member of the sanctuary advisory council and Florida Audubon research director. “So we’ve got to set up areas that are more protective, that still allow people to really enjoy the resource, but also protect it so that our kids and grandkids can enjoy it, too.”

A 2011 report prompted the update when it found widespread changes across the 3,800-square-mile sanctuary that stretches from just north of the Ragged Keys in Biscayne Bay to the Dry Tortugas. Decades of polluted run-off from land and other flushing have caused water quality to decline. Reefs are in distress from the ongoing loss of corals from disease and bleaching events driven by warming oceans. The number of boats plowing across seagrass flats and mangling grasses has increased.

A diver in scuba gear works on coral. A yellow tag with words and the number 12 is attached to coral in the foreground.
Karen Neely
Nova Southeastern University
A diver treats boulder coral infected with stony coral disease on Molasses Reef with antibiotics.

And while the population and amount of fishing have declined since the 1990s, the report found a surge in recreational boating and commercial fishing, combined with an array of human activity are driving changes, from highway construction to marine debris and development.

One of the most disturbing changes, Lorenz said, has been the damage to reefs.

“The fact that we only have 5 percent of our coral cover left that's devastating to me. To go out on the reef and dive and snorkel and just see gray where I used to see these brilliant colors,” he said.

Changes from rising sea levels have also been profound, with flats under deeper water and mangroves failing to keep pace with rising sea levels.

“You get onto these shallow flats where people fish that used to be exposed on every tide. And now it's very rare that you see water that low,” said Lorenz, a marine biologist who has been studying changes in Florida Bay for more than 25 years. “The mangroves have changed. Some areas have died because of sea level rise. Other places, mangroves have expanded. So the map, the physical map, has changed since I've been here.”

Under the plan, sanctuary boundaries would expand by about a thousand square miles. The eastern boundary would move west where existing marine regulations already exclude large vessels. That would make rules easier for mariners. To the south, the western border would move to encompass Pulley Ridge. The deepwater reef near Dry Tortugas and about 50 miles from Key West is the only one in the continental U.S. Because the Florida Loop current passes nearby, scientists believe it could be a source for fish larvae and other marine life for waters around the Keys. Changes would also create a no-anchor zone around the reef.

Seabirds perch on stakes in water. There are drops of water on the camera lens.
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
In 2016, scientists planted stakes in seagrass beds in the sanctuary, hoping bird poop would help grasses recovery from damaged caused by boat propellers.

The plan would also dramatically change rules by creating five types of marine zones. A new restoration area would be created to protect 1.5 square miles of active reef restoration and 23 wildlife management areas designated. Ecological reserves and special use areas would be combined into single conservation areas. And preservation areas would be established with the addition of two, removal of two, combination of two and expansion of three; designating different management areas.

Aerial picture of two docked cruise ships. A large number of buildings and trees are to the right of the docks.
Andy Newman
Florida Keys New Bureau
Cruise ships dock in Key West. They are the biggest vessels to cross the sanctuary and under new rules would be banned from dumping anything but cooling waters into the sanctuary.

Restrictions on discharges from cruise ships, the largest vessels crossing the sanctuary, would also change and prevent the ships from flushing anything but cooling water. That would mean no more greywater from sinks or washing machines or swabbing decks. It would also prohibit ballast water, which has been blamed for spreading pathogens like stony coral disease.

Three years ago, when the plan was first unveiled as a restoration blueprint, some boating groups and some fishermen bitterly condemned the new protections. More than a thousand people attended a Key West meeting, with Key West attorney David Paul Horan threatening to stage another Conch rebellion, like the one he helped organize in the 1980s after federal agents set up a roadblock to catch illegal immigrants.

Not everyone will be happy with the final outcome, said Lorenz, who wished preserves had been expanded more, with restrictions on fishing and diving to give marine life a chance to recover.

“But as the sanctuary has said over and over, you can't always get what you want,” he said. “With this diverse group of people, there's going to be compromise. And so nobody's going to be 100% happy with this plan and nobody's going to be 100% disgusted with it.”

Once the new rules are finalized, they'll undergo another review to consider environmental impacts. The state of Florida, which co-manages fishing regulations, must also sign off on some of the rules. If the process stays on schedule, Lorenz said the new management plan will likely take effect next year or in 2024.

Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.