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Reserve protects undersea treasure

With a Cabinet vote, Florida creates the biggest no-fishing zone in the nation in the Dry Tortugas.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2001


With a Cabinet vote, Florida creates the biggest no-fishing zone in the nation in the Dry Tortugas.

A few years ago, anglers were so opposed to creating a small no-fishing zone near the Dry Tortugas part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary that someone burned an effigy of the sanctuary's superintendent.

Now the tide has turned in the Keys. Commercial and sports fishermen joined environmental advocates Tuesday in winning unanimous approval from Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet for creating the nation's largest no-fishing zone in the Dry Tortugas.

The Cabinet vote was the final step in creating the 151-square-mile Tortugas Reserve, one of the biggest in the world. Environmental advocates hope it will show the way for other parts of the country to create similar undersea preserves.

Within the reserve, fishing and the taking of all other marine life will be forbidden. The rules also restrict vessel discharges, regulate mooring buoys and prohibit anchoring, which can damage coral reefs.

A succession of speakers, including pupils from Stanley Switlik Elementary School in Marathon, urged state officials to approve the reserve, which will protect spawning areas for snapper and grouper and provide deep-water habitat for other commercial species. Many of the anglers had been involved in drawing up the plan.

"When we first heard about marine reserves, there was a lot of fear," said commercial fisherman Tony Iarocci. "But once people got involved in the Tortugas project, the fear started to fade away. I'm now convinced that the Tortugas Reserve will help deal with overfishing and protect a critical breeding ground for the fish."

Named for the sea turtles Ponce de Leon found (and ate) there, the Dry Tortugas lie more than 140 miles from mainland Florida, where the temperate waters of the Gulf of Mexico mingle with the more tropical Caribbean Sea. Their most prominent man-made feature is Fort Jefferson, the largest of the 19th-century American coastal military installations.

Mariners regarded the Tortugas as a hazard to navigation, and the reefs are the site of hundreds of shipwrecks. Scientists hail them as a biological treasure trove that shares its bounty. Offshore currents sweep larvae spawned there into marine ecosystems as far north as Georgia, helping to sustain fisheries all along the Florida coast.

The islands' crystal waters are thick with lush coral. In some places, coral pinnacles 40 feet high jut from the ocean floor, providing an ideal haven for fish. Anglers once caught groupers there that tipped the scale at more than 20 pounds.

But the seven-island national park 70 miles from Key West has become too popular for its own good. Although the park is accessible only by boat or seaplane, it attracts 80,000 visitors a year. The coral reefs have been damaged by heavy anchors. Overfishing has reduced the grouper population. The biggest ones don't even hit the 10-pound mark.

To spare the Tortugas further damage, state and federal agencies want everyone to back off. No more fishing. No anchoring big ships on the coral. No mooring on floating buoys. Although the area still would be accessible by small boats, boaters could not enter without permission.

Two coral reefs of unusual diversity and abundance would be included in the reserve: the Sherwood Forest and Riley's Hump. Sherwood Forest got its name from its mushroom-shaped coral heads, some of them up to 400 years old. The whole reef forms a 3-foot-high veneer over the ocean bottom, riddled with holes and caves that provide ideal habitat for fish.

Riley's Hump is a deep reef terrace known less for its formations than the richness of its marine life. Dolphin and tuna swim there, snapper and grouper spawn there, and it is home to some species found nowhere else, such as the red-tailed triggerfish.

Groups endorsing the reserve included the Center for Marine Conservation, the Nature Conservancy, the Marathon Guides Association and diving organizations -- not to mention the elementary school pupils.

Sixth-grader Arielle Taylor-Manges told the Cabinet, "We believe that our generation is entitled to inherit an intact environment from your generation."

- Times staff writer Julie Hauserman contributed to this story, which contains information from the Associated Press.

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