Florida Corals Designated as Sensitive Sea Area

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, November 13, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. is designating new protections for more than 3,000 square nautical miles around the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to help safeguard the region's sensitive and vulnerable coral reefs. The measure, the first in U.S. waters and only the fifth worldwide, is intended to reduce the threat of large foreign flagged ships damaging coral reefs, sea grass meadows and mangrove forests in the area.

Deputy Secretary of Commerce Sam Bodman joined with shipping industry representatives today to announce that the department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has taken steps through the International Maritime Organization to create the first U.S. zone to protect coral from anchors, groundings and collisions from large international ships. The zone, known as the Florida Keys' Particularly Sensitive Sea Area, covers more than 3,000 square nautical miles.


There are more than 6,000 species of plants and animals in the waters of the Florida Keys, and many of these can be found on the coral reefs of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Mike White. All photos courtesy Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary)
Starting December 1, ships greater than 50 meters (164 feet) in length that cross the zone will be required to avoid certain areas within the zone altogether and abide by three no anchoring areas within the zone. All nautical charts produced worldwide will now show the Florida Particularly Sensitive Sea Area and show these protective measures.

More than 40 percent of the world's commerce passes through the Florida Straits each year. Ten large ship groundings have occurred in the zone since 1984, and coral damage by rogue anchoring by large ships or freighters has occurred 17 times since 1997.

"This rare international form of protection now awarded to fragile Florida Keys coral reefs is an example of how federal resource managers can work closely with industry to protect vulnerable natural resources while simultaneously supporting shipping and economic growth," said deputy secretary of Commerce Samuel Bodman at a news conference held today in Washington, DC.


Scars from boat propellers traveling through sea grass beds can take up to a decade to recover. (Photo by Harold Hudson)
"Both ship trade and the tourism tied to the Keys coral reefs have vital economic significance to the state and region," added Bodman. "This protective status makes the international shipping community aware of the coral reefs and increases compliance with domestic measures already in place to protect the area, while not hindering trade and commerce."

NOAA and the U.S. delegation worked on behalf of the state of Florida to submit a proposal to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to designate the marine area that stretches from Biscayne National Park to the Tortugas and encompasses all of NOAA's Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The IMO is a United Nations agency responsible for issues relating to international shipping.

The waters around the Florida Keys and the Tortugas are some of the most heavily trafficked shipping areas in the world. Over the years, ships have caused damage to the coral reef ecosystem through anchoring, groundings, collisions and accidental or operational discharges of harmful substances.


The Florida Straits, an area where the Gulf Stream closely hugs the south Florida coast, has been a popular shipping lane for centuries. The outline of the merchant marine freighter Benwood, which sunk off the coast of Key Largo during World War II, is still visible beneath the waves. (Photo by Laura Urian)
To gain approval for a protected sea area, a nation must identify maritime interest compliance measures with which the IMO can direct ships to comply. For the Florida Keys' Particularly Sensitive Sea Area these measures include four "areas to be avoided" that prevent large ships from traveling too close to the coral reef.

The northernmost area to be avoided was included in response to comments by mariners operating in the area because of the risk of collisions that could result in devastating pollution to the reefs.

The three mandatory no anchoring areas will help protect fragile reefs in the Tortugas against the damage that can be caused by the dragging and swinging of large anchors. But the measure takes into account the interests of shipping and commerce by continuing to allow ships to navigate through this area.


Florida's coral reefs provide homes for tiny animals like these banded coral shrimp. (Photo by Joseph Feingold)
"It is imperative that the maritime industry support environmental protection initiatives that maintain the ability to continue efficient, effective and environmentally responsible marine transportation," said Joe Cox, president of the Chamber of Shipping of America, which represents 21 U.S. based shipping companies. "The free flow of commerce and protection of our marine environment demand nothing less."

U.S. shipping interests, which have been complying with similar domestic protective policy for years now, supported NOAA in its application for official status of the protective zone, as did the government of Florida.

"The state of Florida recognizes the importance of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the protections that already exist on a national scale," said Florida Governor Jeb Bush. "This is yet another step to ensure that our international shipping community is aware of the protections we have put in place for this unique ecosystem. Florida has an important natural resource that must be protected."

NOAA and the state of Florida manage the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary through a co-trustee agreement. The congressionally designated sanctuary was signed into law on November 16, 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, protecting 2,896 square nautical miles stretching from Biscayne Bay to the Tortugas, and encompassing some of this nation's most diverse and fragile marine resources.


Coral also shelters predators like this goldentail moray eel. (Photo by Steve Kipnis)
While protections for the sanctuary were already in place domestically, their adoption by the IMO means these areas will appear on international charts, increasing mariner awareness and compliance. For instance, although the no anchoring zones protecting the deep reefs of the Tortugas have been in place since 1997 and appear on NOAA nautical charts, many foreign flagged vessels travel the area and carry non-NOAA charts that do not identify this zone.

While anchoring incidents have declined since 1997, NOAA continues to document violations by foreign vessels.

The Florida Keys' Particularly Sensitive Sea Area joins four similarly protected areas around the globe, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Sabana-Camaguey Archipelago in Cuba, Malpelo Island in Colombia, and the Wadden Sea, proposed by Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany.