Conservation pays off in Florida marine sanctuary

Limiting fishing and other disturbances can trigger a recovery of marine ecosystems, according to studies conducted at Dry Tortugas National Park. PHOTO COURTESY NOAA.

Researcher document recovery in coral reef ecosystems of Dry Tortugas National Park

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Focused and collaborative conservation efforts can pay off in coral reef ecosystems, federal biologists say, reporting that they’ve documented a resurgence of reef fish and corals in the Dry Tortugas National Park, located about 70 miles west of Key West.

NOAA established the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 2001, consisting of 151 square nautical miles of protected marine habitat. To monitor the progress of this protected area, which had suffered from overfishing and other environmental changes, the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies funded a marine census to examine how the ecosystem was responding after seven years as a protected area.

“We are very encouraged to see that stocks have slowly begun to recuperate since implementing ‘no-take’ marine protected areas in the region,” said Jerry Ault, chief scientist on the project and a professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “We are currently crunching the data collected to see what adjustments may need to be made to help guide future management decisions to address the issues of biodiversity protection, restoration of ecological integrity, and fishery management.”

As part of the census, divers from six federal agencies and universities collected data showing increases in the numbers of snapper, grouper, and corals in the outermost Florida Keys, hailed as signs of recovery.

The census project itself set a record. During the 20-day study, 1,710 research dives or studies were made, for an average of 86 dives a day from seven feet to 110 feet deep. The divers spent the equivalent of about 46 days underwater.

“We also were looking at how the area has responded to hurricane activity,” said Ault. “This area has been hit by six major hurricanes since 2004, so we can compare that information with what we found this year to see what effect the hurricanes had on the environment.”

In 2007, the TER was complemented by a 50 square nautical mile Research Natural Area — a no-take, no-anchor ecological preserve — in Dry Tortugas National Park.

CIMAS is one of 13 cooperative institutes associated with NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. It combines university research resources with those in NOAA to develop a research center that will help scientists better understand the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere

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