In a comment period that will help determine the fate of the continental U.S.’s only barrier reef, pro-conservation voices delivered more than 40,000 comments urging managers of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKMNS) to prioritize the health of ocean life and ocean ecosystems. The comments were submitted in response to the latest iteration of the "Restoration Blueprint," FKNMS’s newly proposed regulations and accompanying management plan, put forward by Sanctuary managers to address mounting challenges facing this critical ecosystem.
“From our iconic waterbirds to vibrant reefs and seagrass meadows, the Keys’ way of life is built on the health of our aquatic resources. This vulnerable paradise is more threatened than ever before by climate change, coral disease, and overuse. The solution is the important new protections codified in the Restoration Blueprint for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary,” says Jerry Lorenz, PhD, Audubon Florida’s State Research Director and 24-year FKNMS Advisory Council member, on behalf of the Florida Keys Restoration Partnership. “The response from the public has been overwhelming and clear: Americans across the country care deeply about this special place and its natural resources, and believe these common-sense protections are urgently needed.”
The Sanctuary, which is jointly managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the State of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), has been undergoing a management plan and zoning review since 2019, following a 2011 report that concluded habitats and ocean life in the continental United States’ only barrier reef were in fair to poor condition – a situation that has only worsened in recent years.
The Florida Keys Restoration Partnership, a coalition of local, state, and national organizations and individuals committed to the protection and restoration of the Sanctuary, supported a number of the changes proposed by Sanctuary staff while urging greater action to protect larger parts of the ecosystem, as well as to increase protections for the Sanctuary’s shallow-water habitats. This regional coalition received support from more than 50 environmental NGOs. The Sanctuary also heard from dozens of student and youth-serving organizations highlighting the need to keep the Keys’ ecosystems safe for future generations.
In addition to written comments (including 1,200+ submitted by Audubon members), faith leaders, students, scientists, and members of South Florida communities weighed in with Sanctuary officials during four oral public comment opportunities, and at a multilingual virtual event organized by Sachamama and hosted by ten local Ocean Ambassadors, which engaged more than 350 community members to take action and 130 to join the event.
“In this public comment period, I feel so happy to have raised my voice to request these sacred ecosystems to be protected and for my community to be able to experience them. I ask all the officials to please take action, we cannot wait any longer.” - Claudia Quiñones, Sachamama Community Leader & Ocean Ambassador *Quote Translated from Latin American Spanish
The FKNMS is an ecological gem and national treasure for all Americans. It protects almost 3,800 square miles of marine resources and is home to one of the largest barrier reefs in the world, extensive seagrass meadows, mangrove forests, and thousands of species of marine life. The FKNMS shares ecosystem connectivity with Everglades, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas national parks and other protected areas, enhancing biodiversity and marine wildlife habitat along the Florida reef tract. It is also an important economic driver in the Florida Keys, supporting about 43,000 jobs and contributing an estimated $4.4 billion annually to Florida’s economy. But in the last 25 years, coral cover has declined by half; thousands of acres of seagrass have been damaged by propeller scars and poor water quality; and spawning aggregations for multiple fish species are diminished or have disappeared.
"As a Recreational Dive Instructor in the Florida Keys, the protection of the Sanctuary is crucial to not only the future of the snorkel and dive tourism industry, but also the future of the environment itself,” says Katie Cleek, Secretary of Surfrider Foundation’s Florida Keys Chapter. “The ability to educate people while they simultaneously have the opportunity to experience the amazing underwater environment creates advocates for the future of the coral reefs all over the world. Without the protection of the Sanctuary, we risk losing the opportunity to educate and spark passion for environmental advocates for future generations to come."
Audubon has worked for more than a century to protect and restore America's Everglades.