Subpar Sanctuary Conditions Spur New Management Plan

“Being able to communicate the changes, why they are needed, and what is the environmental and economic impact following those changes is essential”- Beth Dieveney, Deputy Superintendent for Science and Policy for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary


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Sunset overlooking the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary from Key West, Florida. Credit: Erika Koontz

Yesterday morning, I had the opportunity to speak with Beth Dieveney, quoted above. In her position, she works to develop the alternative management options for the sanctuary, and participates in the process to select the preferred alternative, or the one that the sanctuary managers believe to be the best way to meet the established management goals and improve the health of the sanctuary.

I compiled a list of questions to ask her, and she answered them graciously and with more material than I expected to receive. As I write this post, I’m steadily sifting through webpage after webpage for documents that explain the process of revising the management plan for the sanctuary, the role of public comment, and how scientific research helps to advise the managers, like Beth, to create an arsenal of effective management options for the sanctuary. We discussed in detail how the revision process began in 2011 with the release of the first condition report for the sanctuary along with a sound of alarm from the Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC) to re-evaluate the 2007 version of the plan and hopefully improve the health of the sanctuary in the coming years (Dieveney 2015).

The condition report was the impetus for change, and includes a comprehensive analysis of water, habitat, living resources, and maritime archaeological resources. Across all four parameters, there are seventeen questions and ratings that gauge the well being of the resources. Eight received ratings indicating that conditions appear to be declining, six indicated that conditions were unchanging, one indicated improving conditions, and two had undetermined trends. Following those trends, each received a status. Two were Good/Fair, three were Fair, ten were Fair/Poor, one was Poor, and one Undetermined (Office of National Marine Sanctuaries).

Water

In general, water quality within the sanctuary is Fair to Poor and not yet changing, but has potential to decline in the future due to increasing landward anthropological actions that currently trouble the ecosystem. To manage water drainage in residential and commerical areas in southern Florida, canals have been constructed to control flooding. Constructed in isolation to natural oceanographic processes like tides, the many canals often concentrate nutrients and hydrogen sulfide gases in close proximity to residential neighborhoods. Hypoxic waters and high nutrient concentrations in the canals create human health issues, unsustainable habitat, and eutrophic sanctuary conditions when canals overflow into sanctuary waters during storm events (Office of National Marine Sanctuaries).

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A glimpse into the sanctuary from the Naval Station in Key West, Florida. Credit: Erika Koontz

Habitat

The dominant habitats within the sanctuary, mangroves, hardbottom, coral reef, and seagrass beds are declining due to increasing human activities and remnant actions. The distribution and abundance is Good/Fair for all habitats, but there is no known information on how contaminants like sewage and pharmaceuticals, are affecting habitat health. More specifically, coral reefs are continuing to decline and have been since the 1970s because of widespread disease and bleaching both in the Florida Keys and all throughout the Caribbean. The biggest threats to all benthic habitats are storms, boat propeller damage and scarring, and derelict fishing gear. Wayward gear, including lobster traps, monofilament line, and drift nets, is omnipresent throughout the sanctuary, with no take zones containing an equal or greater concentration of gear than surrounding multiple-use zones. On land, mangroves has been lost in great numbers due to shoreline development, which has lead to their present extent to be only half of what it was two decades ago (Office of National Marine Sanctuaries).

Living Resources

The predominant condition is Fair/Poor and is declining because of historic and current overfishing and increasing human impact. Although there has been a decline in the number of people fishing because of rising gear expense and upkeep, historic actions, from over a century prior, are still affecting populations today. No-take zones have been studied and shown to be insufficient in size or enforcement to be effectively increasing targeted fish populations. Additionally, the introduction of non-native species, such as the lion fish, have negatively affected species diversity and richness of the area. The status of key species, stony corals, seagrasses, queen conch, Caribbean spiny lobster, long-spined sea-urchin, the snapper-grouper complex, and sea turtles have shown very slight increases in abundance or else have continued to decline. The living resource prognosis is poor because of historic and recent disease outbreaks, phytoplankton blooms, vessel groundings, and petroleum and chemical spills. Even when current conditions are favorable to population rebound, species like the green turtle, still struggle to recover because of past anthropological effects (Office of National Marine Sanctuaries).

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Pterois volitans, Red Lionfish, in captivity for research purposes. Credit: Erika Koontz

Maritime Archaeological Resources

Due to natural environmental degradation and the illegal removal of artifacts by humans, the overall rating is Fair, but declining. Storms can cause movement and splintering of the submerged artifacts, whereby their movement can damage other sensitive benthic habitats, such as coral reefs (Office of National Marine Sanctuaries)

Conclusion

The current health of the sanctuary is poor because of remnant effects of historic practices within the Caribbean. Within twenty years of sanctuary establishment, few aspects are improving not because the current techniques are not working, but because of remnant aftershocks spawning from centuries of mismanagement. Actions today may be labeled ‘inconsequential’ when considering the strength of historic organism population levels and diversity, but the current weakened populations recover slowly or not at all from the current actions. Research has shown that many species are on the brink of extirpation from the sanctuary, and the regulations of the new management plan must curtail all present human actions if there is to be ecosystem stability and eventual improvement. As a final note, the 2011 Condition Report was “able to communicate the changes, why they are needed, and what is the environmental and economic impact following those changes” (Dieveney 2015) to the Sanctuary Advisory Committee, which responded effectively with a call to revise the 2007 Management Plan.

References:

Dieveney, Beth. Personal interview. 1 July 2015.

Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Condition Report 2011. 2011. PDF.

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