The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) needs more protection. The critical natural resources within its borders face threats from increased boating, fishing, and diving pressure, as well as from ocean acidification and warming, pollution, and habitat loss from sea level rise and intense storm events. To address current and future threats, the FKNMS has conducted a review of the Sanctuary’s management plan, zoning plan, and regulations for the first time since 1997. This review, titled the “Restoration Blueprint,” proposes changes to marine zones and certain activities within the Sanctuary to address mounting threats to resources while building the ecological resilience necessary to support environmental health and economic sustainability.
We Need a Healthy Sanctuary
Established in 1990, the Sanctuary protects a 3,800 square-mile area of ecologically connected habitats like mangrove forests, seagrass beds, and coral reefs. The Sanctuary supports more than 6,000 species of marine life and is home to the third largest barrier reef ecosystem as well as the largest documented contiguous seagrass community in the Northern Hemisphere. Sharing borders with Everglades, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas national parks, as well as four national wildlife refuges, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is vital to protecting and restoring vulnerable ecosystems throughout South Florida. It also plays an influential economic role, with approximately 60% of the Florida Keys economy directly tied to marine activities, while contributing $4.4 billion annually to the state’s economy. Unfortunately, the Sanctuary has reported that 56,000 acres of seagrass beds have been damaged by boats — nearly double the amount scarred just 20 years ago. Sponge dieoffs are on the rise as a result of seagrass death while algal blooms continue to plague Florida Bay and areas of the reef tract. Today, coral cover has declined to just 2% compared to 13% in 1996.
Audubon and the Sanctuary
Audubon Florida has been involved in a formal capacity with FKNMS for more than 20 years through appointed positions on the Sanctuary Advisory Council. Currently, Audubon Florida’s State Research Director, Jerry Lorenz, PhD, is the appointed member in the Conservation and Environment seat, and Kelly Cox, Esq., Director of Everglades Policy, is the appointed member in the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration seat on the Council. Together, Lorenz and Cox also serve on the FKNMS Connectivity Team — a working group established to facilitate multi-agency and stakeholder collaboration related to Everglades restoration, water quality, habitats, and living marine resources. Through these positions and in collaboration with other stakeholder groups such as the Florida Keys Restoration Partnership, Audubon Florida has been reviewing the Restoration Blueprint components and submitted technical comments on the process.
How a New Blueprint Can Help
Notably, there are several aspects of the proposed marine zoning changes that will better protect wildlife and sensitive habitats. For example, the proposed rule creates an idle speed zone around Channel Key just south of Long Key — an important change for this small island which serves as an essential refuge for numerous bird species, including State-designated Threatened Reddish Egrets.
This article was published in the Fall 2022 State of the Everglades report.