Proposed Changes to Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Council to address FKNMS Restoration Blueprint at March meeting


(NEWSLETTER: Winter 2020)


Sportfishing Capital of the World, Diver’s Paradise, the Conch Republic, mention the Florida Keys and several images may come to mind, most of them involving expansive aqua blue waters and coral reefs that surround the 1,700 islands that make up the Keys.

Photo courtesy of National Marine Sanctuaries


In response to growing concerns about the decline of the coral reef ecosystem, the majority of the Florida Keys were designated the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 1990, becoming the ninth in the National Marine Sanctuary System. There are currently 13 sanctuaries and two marine monuments within the system. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary currently encompasses 3,800 square miles, including the shallow waters between the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, and is adjacent to most of the estuarine waters of South Florida including Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay. The Sanctuary was designed to help protect open ocean, offshore and nearshore reefs, seagrass, hardbottom, and fringing mangroves, all important habitats for the high diversity of tropical and subtropical species found there. For example, designation of the sanctuary immediately protected the area from oil exploration, mining or any activity impacting the sea floor, and restricted large shipping traffic. Anchoring on, touching, or collecting corals was also restricted in Sanctuary waters.


Current marine zoning within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary


The Florida Keys are part of a much larger South Florida ecosystem that includes the seagrass beds of Florida Bay, the Everglades, mangrove swamps, and other diverse habitats. All of these areas have been impacted by drainage canals developed to facilitate coastal development, agriculture, and flood control. Years of altering the natural freshwater flow and water quality has degraded marine habitats. Hurricanes, coral disease, boat groundings, rising ocean temperatures, pollution, and increasing human interactions pose additional threats.


New Measures Proposed – The FL Keys National Marine Sanctuary Restoration Blueprint

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was the first in the nation to establish a comprehensive network of marine zones in 1997. The marine zoning plan includes five types of zones with varying levels of protection: 1) Ecological Reserves; 2) Sanctuary Preservation Areas; 3) Wildlife Management Areas; 4) Existing Management Areas; and 4) Special Use Areas. Each zone has specific regulations and restrictions designed to protect sensitive parts of the ecosystem while allowing activities compatible with resource protection.

NOAA (under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act) is currently proposing additional measures to further reduce threats and, where appropriate, restore coral reefs, seagrasses, and other important habitats. Referred to as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Restoration Blueprint, actions include expanding the sanctuary boundary, updating sanctuary-wide regulations, modifying existing and creating additional marine zones and associated regulations, and revising the sanctuary management plan.


Actions and alternatives in the Restoration Blueprint are extensive and not without controversy. The Sanctuary has held several meetings to obtain public comment and has accepted input online. This past fall, members of the South Atlantic Council’s Snapper Grouper, Shrimp, Deepwater Shrimp, Mackerel Cobia, Dolphin Wahoo, Coral, and Habitat Protection and Ecosystem-Based Management advisory panels received overviews of proposed changes and provided the Council with recommendations. The Council’s Coral Advisory Panel supported the more conservative actions within the Restoration Blueprint, noting significant impacts to habitat since 2014, including coral bleaching events, coral disease, seagrass die-off, sponge die-off, harmful algal blooms, and a category 4 hurricane (Irma). Economic impacts were also considered, with 58% of all jobs in the Florida Keys tied to the coral reef, and marine activities generating $3.4 billion in sales and income annually.


Photo courtesy of National Marine Sanctuaries


Members of the Snapper Grouper Advisory Panel expressed concerns about the complexity of proposed regulation changes, enforcement challenges, proposed idle-speed/no-wake areas off Long Key, and access to Western Dry Rocks, a popular fishing spot and a multispecies fish spawning aggregation location. The Snapper Grouper AP members recommended status quo for the sanctuary and suggested additional studies to show the effectiveness of existing regulations for public “buy-in” before adding any new marine zones. The Council’s Spiny Lobster AP noted concerns about numerous areas in the backcountry proposed as “no entry” and subsequent enforcement of those areas. They acknowledged declines in the Keys ecosystem and stressed that water quality issues need addressing but said there was insufficient information to support the need to close areas to lobster trap fishing.


The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary includes the largest documented continuous seagrass community in the Northern Hemisphere, courtesy of FWRI


During the Council’s December 2019 meeting, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Sarah Fangman provided a detailed overview of proposed measures as they apply to fisheries and habitat. Fangman noted the Sanctuary had received over 700 public comments as of December. Some of the issues Council members expressed concern about pointed to the ability of the Sanctuary to address water quality issues, as well as restricted areas, mooring buoys, idle-speed restrictions, and bait fishing permits. The Council also discussed its role in providing input for proposed measures within the sanctuary.


The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) provided the Council with an Items of Interest summary of actions proposed in the Restoration Blueprint for reference during Council discussions in December. More recently, FWC held a series of small-group meetings seeking input from diverse user groups on the proposed measures. A summary from the public input meetings and the FWC’s February Commission meeting input will be provided for the Council’s continued discussion of the Restoration Blueprint during its March 2-6, 2020, quarterly meeting in Jekyll Island, GA. The meeting will be available via webinar as it occurs. Details are available at:



Topics of Interest Within the Florida Keys Restoration Blueprint

  • Expansion of Sanctuary boundaries
  • Phase-out of baitfish permits
  • Fish feeding regulations
  • Protection of large, contiguous habitat
  • Expansion of Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPAs) into deeper waters
  • Limited access to Carysfort Reef, Sombrero Reef, and Sand Key Reef SPAs
  • Creation of new SPAs in South Atlantic federal waters
  • Key Largo Management Area
  • Tortugas Spawning Corridor SPA
  • Marquesas Keys Turtle Wildlife Management Area


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