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Limits may guard Tortugas' waters

Overfishing and damage to coral reefs spawn a drive to create the nation's largest undersea reserve.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 15, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- The Dry Tortugas have long been known as the crown jewel of the Florida Keys. The islands' crystal waters are thick with lush coral, and 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.

Even though the park is accessible only by boat or seaplane, it attracted more than 80,000 visitors last year. The coral reefs have been damaged by heavy boat anchors. Overfishing has reduced the grouper population so the biggest ones now don't even hit the 10-pound mark.

So a group of federal and state agencies are considering a drastic step: closing off 151 square nautical miles around the Dry Tortugas to all fishing, declaring those two areas an ecological reserve. Only boats smaller than 100 feet would be allowed to anchor there, and access by any boat would be limited to those carrying government-issued permits.

The Tortugas no-take area would be the largest undersea preserve in the United States and one of the biggest in the world. If it succeeds, it could set the stage for creating other reserves around the country.

The reserve proposal is being aired in a series of public hearings around the state this month. On Wednesday, the road show came to the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus. About 50 people from St. Petersburg, Largo, Tampa and Dunedin took the time to view the maps and charts outlining the proposal and talk to officials of the federal and state agencies behind it.

So far, "we're not getting a huge backlash," said Billy Causey, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which wraps around the boundaries of Dry Tortugas National Park. But once the hearings move to the Keys next week, the proposal may face greater opposition, he said.

The limits are likely to affect charter-boat fishing operations, lobster trappers and shrimpers, say federal officials. Causey predicted they would see greater harvests outside the boundaries of the reserve, making up any lost income.

In addition, the National Park Service is proposing new regulations to limit access to portions of the park. There now are two ferry boats and four seaplane companies flying tourists in, and the new regulations would limit access to just one ferry and one seaplane tour company.

Causey said he hopes to implement the plan by the end of this year. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is expected to vote on its portion of the plan next month, and the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will vote on the portion involving state waters this fall. Causey said Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet will have the final say.

Named for the sea turtles Ponce de Leon found (and ate) there, the 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 manmade feature is Fort Jefferson, the largest of the 19th-century American coastal military installations.

Ancient mariners regarded the Tortugas as a hazard to navigation, the site of hundreds of tragic 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 water surrounding the Tortugas is remarkably clear, and the coral remarkably healthy. In some places, coral pinnacles 40 feet high jut from the ocean floor. 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.

But large freighters have frequently used Riley's Hump as a stopping-off point between port visits. Their heavy anchors damage the fragile coral.

Fish and lobster populations among both reefs have been depleted by increased commercial and recreational fishing, as the number of tourists visiting the Tortugas has jumped 400 percent over the past dozen years.

To spare the Tortugas further damage, state and federal agencies in effect want to tell everyone to back off. No more fishing. No anchoring big ships on the coral. Don't even moor on a floating buoy there. Although the area still would be accessible by smaller boats, those boaters could not enter without permission.

Federal officials want to duplicate the reserve in other coastal areas around the country. New sanctuaries have been proposed off southern California, Georgia and at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay.

Environmental groups such as the Center for Marine Conservation and World Wildlife Fund have been lobbying for the creation of more reserves to give fish and other marine life a chance to rebuild their population. They contend this would provide long-term benefits for commercial fishermen.

They point to the results from Florida's "stealth reserve," Cape Canaveral. For security reasons, the waters surrounding the Kennedy Space Center have been off-limits to anglers for decades. As a result, the size and population of snook, mullet, spotted sea trout and other fish have boomed.

For information about the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, click on http://www.fknms.nos.noaa.gov/regs/ summary.html or call (305) 743-2437 ext. 25.

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