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Managed Areas: Protecting Marine Habitat & Fisheries

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Designated Managed Areas Help Protect Marine Habitat and Fisheries

New System Management Plan Workgroup will aid in the management and evaluation of areas


Mention federal fisheries management to most fishermen and the first thoughts that come to mind may be rules and regulations – size limits, bag limits, seasonal closures, etc. These are all tools used to manage fisheries, but equally important are measures used to protect habitat and ecosystems essential to healthy fish stocks. Managed areas such as marine protected areas, special management zones, and other managed area designations are used to limit impacts to habitat from fishing activities, help provide protection for spawning aggregations, and provide additional layers of protection to sensitive bottom habitat areas from disruptive activities such as oil and gas exploration.

New System Management Plan Workgroup

The Council has adopted system management plans for its Deepwater Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) implemented in 2009, and most recently, areas designated as Spawning Special Management Zones (SMZs) in 2016. The system management plans are designed to include three different phases: designing and planning, adequacy and appropriateness, and outputs and outcomes. For the MPAs and Spawning SMZs, most of the designing and planning was addressed as the Council developed amendments to create the managed areas. In 2015, the Council also approved an Evaluation Plan for the Oculina Experimental Closed Area.

Additional system management plans are being developed for other managed areas. The Council recently appointed a new System Management Plan (SMP) Workgroup, composed of ecologists, coral scientists, acoustic and mapping specialists, researchers, law enforcement and outreach representatives, and commercial and recreational fishermen. The Workgroup will help guide the Council by developing recommendations for size, configuration, and regulations for managed areas; discussing research, outreach, and enforcement efforts; potential funding opportunities; and commenting on research priorities for all managed areas. Ultimately, the Council's goal is to have a single System Management Plan that includes sections for each managed area, with a target date for completion in 2025.

The SMP Workgroup met for the first time in October and again in November via webinar, focusing on the Council's Spawning SMZs for its first report.

To better understand the tasks of the SMP Workgroup and how a single System Management Plan may be developed, it is helpful to look at the Council's history in creating these managed areas.


Photos – Caption p. 1

During WWII, anti-submarine patrols used explosives against lurking German U-boats that may have used large deepwater coral pinnacles off the east coast of Florida to help disguise their location. Years later, commercial trawling and concentrated fishing would take their toll on the Oculina Bank, named for the Oculina varicosacoral found there. The Oculina Bank Habitat Area of Particular Concern was designated in 1984, establishing the first deepwater coral protection in the U.S.


The Oculina Bank - First Deepwater Coral Protected Area

Protection of deepwater coral habitats by the Council dates back more than three decades. he Oculina Bank, named after the slow-growing ivory tree coral, Oculina varicosa, is a narrow strip of coral reefs located off the central east coast of Florida. Although Oculina coral can be found at a variety of depths, the species forms massive thickets at depths ranging from75-90 meters (200-350 feet). These thickets support diverse communities of finfish and invertebrates, and consequently have been designated as essential habitat for many species of fish. Once plagued by World War II-era bombings to destroy German U-boats, fishing impacts, and episodic die-offs, this important ecosystem is now protected in federal waters of the U.S. South Atlantic Bight.

Scientists first discovered the Oculina coral reef in 1975. After discovering the reef and observing the importance of the reef habitat, scientists requested that the Oculina reefs be protected from the developing roller rig fishery (trawl), as well as fish trap and longline fisheries. As a result, the unique coral reef ecosystem was designated as the Oculina Bank Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC) in 1984. The original section was 23 nautical miles long and 4 nautical miles wide (92 square nautical miles) and located about 15 miles off the Fort Pierce coast in Florida.

Upon the discovery of additional Oculinacoral mounds, the area was expanded in 2000 and again in 2015. The Oculina Bank HAPC is now over 130 nautical miles long, stretching from Fort Pierce northward to almost St. Augustine, Florida. Bottom-tending fishing gear (which includes trawling, fish traps, and dredging) and anchoring by fishing vessels are prohibited in the area.

In 1994, managers established additional regulations for the original 92-square mile stretch of reef by creating the Oculina Experimental Closed Area to protect critical habitat for juvenile and spawning groupers, including snowy grouper, speckled hind, gag, and scamp. The possession and fishing for snapper grouper species is prohibited and, much like regulations set for the larger Oculina Bank HAPC, the use of bottom-tending fishing gear and anchoring by fishing vessels are both prohibited.

The Oculina Bank HAPC and the Oculina Experimental Closed Area are rich in biological diversity and cultural history. The regulatory measures that are currently in place should aid in the protection of these important and fragile Oculina corals, as well as the myriad of species that rely on these corals for habitat.

Deepwater Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern

To safeguard the importance and uniqueness of deep water coral habitats in the South Atlantic, in 2010 the Council designated five areas as Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern. The Coral HAPCs encompass more than 23,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of the state of West Virginia, and include diverse deepwater coral habitats ranging in location from the Cape Lookout Lophelia Banks off the coast of  North Carolina to the Pourtales Terrace located east of the Florida Keys.

Management measures to help protect these sensitive habitats include a prohibition on the use of fishing gear (bottom longline, bottom and mid-water trawl, dredge, pot, and trap), anchoring by fishing vessels, and possession of deep water coral. Maps and videos highlighting these unique areas are available from the Council's website at:

To allow fishermen to continue operating within traditional fishing grounds, the Council also designated Shrimp Access Areas within the Stetson-Miami Terrace, the largest of the Coral HAPCs. The designation allows limited access for permitted commercial rock shrimp vessels that operate using Vessel Monitoring Systems to track vessel locations. Similarly, access areas have been designated for the commercial golden crab fishery.


Oculina Bank Map – Caption

The Oculina Bank Habitat Area of Particular Concern now stretches along the east coast of Florida. Anchoring and the use of bottom tending fishing gear is prohibited in the HAPC. A 92-square nautical mile area within the southwest quadrant is designated at the Oculina Experimental Closed Area, where fishing for snapper grouper species is prohibited to provide further protection for reef fishes and associated deepwater coral habitats.



Deepwater Marine Protected Areas

It took nearly 16 years with a great deal of input from the public, but eventually eight Deepwater Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) would be established in the South Atlantic region in 2009 through Amendment 14 to the Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan. The MPAs are designed to protect a portion of the long-lived, “deep water” snapper grouper species such as snowy grouper, speckled hind, and blueline tilefish.

The MPAs range in size from 2 by 4 nautical miles to 10 by 15 nautical miles. In addition to the seven areas that encompass natural habitat, one area off Charleston, South Carolina was established to create a deep water artificial reef. Fishing for, or possession of species within the snapper grouper management complex is prohibited within the Deepwater MPAs. Fishing for pelagic species such as dolphin and wahoo is allowed.


DW MPA Brochure Cover – Caption

Maps, coordinates, and additional information about Deepwater MPAs are available from the Council's website.


Spawning Special Management Zones

     The Council's latest designated managed areas are five Spawning Special Management Zones (SMZs) that became effective on July 31, 2017. The five Spawning SMZs are designed to help protect areas important for spawning, such as areas where spawning has been observed or likely to occur, including areas with favorable ocean currents and habitats. The unique Spawning SMZs include portions of an elbow-shaped ledge off the coast of South Carolina, two experimental artificial reef areas, and a deep sinkhole in the ocean floor just off the Florida Keys.


[Photo of Speckled Hind – Caption]

Cooperative research with commercial fishermen helped to identify potential spawning areas for species such as speckled hind, a highly threatened species currently protected from harvest. This juvenile sample was taken from the Devil's Hole (Georgetown Hole) area off the coast of South Carolina.


Some of these important spawning areas were identified using cooperative research with fishermen and through input from fishery scientists, members of the Council's advisory panels, and public input. These areas are home to a mix of shallow water and deepwater species, including black sea bass, triggerfish, speckled hind, vermilion snapper, warsaw grouper, gag, and snowy grouper. Fishing for snapper grouper species is prohibited within the areas.

By protecting the spawning area, spawning could increase and lead to increased recruitment of many snapper grouper species. An additional goal for designating the spawning SMZs is to reduce bycatch and bycatch mortality of snapper grouper species, including speckled hind and warsaw grouper, two species currently restricted from harvest.


Spawning SMZ Map and Caption – Spawning Special Management Zones


The Spawning SMZs were established through Amendment 36 to the Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan. In addition to designating the Spawning SMZs, the amendment also includes a sunset provision that requires the areas to be reauthorized within 10 years. A System Management Plan for the Spawning SMZs was approved in conjunction with the amendment, outlining research and monitoring, law enforcement, and outreach needs.

The Council's System Management Plan Workgroup will assist the Council in evaluation of the Spawning SMZs and determine if management changes are needed to meet their goals, as well as other managed areas in the future.


Side Bar with Lophelia_Okeanos Photo with Caption

What kind of research and monitoring efforts have taken place within designated managed areas? How do we know if they are working?  We'll take a look at the science behind the management areas in the next issue of the South Atlantic Updatenewsletter as we highlight the latest deepwater coral research, monitoring efforts within MPAs, and more. For complete maps of current managed areas visit: