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The Dry Tortugas: a promise in jeopardy

The Center for Marine Conservation says establishing an ecological reserve in the Dry Tortugas, is our last chance to protect the last real wild ocean place in the continental United States  

October 30, 1998
Web posted at: 4:00 PM EDT

By Environmental News Network staff

A group of respected European scientists declared earlier this week that efforts to save most of the world's rain forests are doomed to failure and should probably be abandoned, leaving whatever resources are available to concentrate on the few areas in the world where it is still possible to save them.

Coral reefs are often called the rain forests of the sea and they are facing the same fate as their land-based cousins. One of the few places where it may not be too late is the Dry Tortugas.

The series of seven islands, which in total are less than a single square mile of land, lie about 70 miles west of the Florida Keys. In 1935, a 115-square-mile area which included the seven tiny islands was designated as a national monument. In 1992, it was renamed and redesignated as a National Park. The national park status conferred more protection to the area's marine resources.

In July 1997, the 2,800-square-nautical-mile ecosystem surrounding the Florida Keys, which includes the third largest barrier reef system in the world, was designated as a national marine sanctuary.

Now, you would think that the fish, coral, grasses and so on in a park within a sanctuary would be getting enough protection. Not true. Park use has doubled in the last three years, from 30,000 to 60,000 visitors and although fishing is prohibited within the park, it is allowed in the sanctuary. Up to 100 commercial fishing boats now work the area outside the park.

In short, better boats, more people, increasingly efficient equipment and improved navigation have all combined to make the promise of the Dry Tortugas as one of the last wild ocean places in the continental United States a promise in jeopardy.

To protect the Tortugas, a group of state and federal agencies and conservation groups are taking some baby steps toward working together to include the area in a marine ecological reserve. An ecological reserve is an area of the sanctuary set aside as a "no-take" area, consisting of contiguous, diverse habitats, where human influences can be minimized "to provide natural spawning, nursery and permanent residence areas for the replenishment and genetic protection of marine life."

"By creating an ecological reserve in the sanctuary's portion of the Tortugas, we hope to preserve the extraordinary range of species found there. The reserve also will serve as a control site away from the populated Keys, helping scientists determine which changes in the coral reef ecosystem stem from human activities and which are natural," said Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Billy Causey.

The National Park Service and the National Marine Sanctuary are holding meetings in Florida to collect public comment on how much, if any, of the Tortugas national park region should be included in a planned ecological reserve. Because the park service has to complete a revised management plan for the park, the two agencies are holding the meetings jointly. Whether they decide to act jointly will depend on public input.

The Dry Tortugas were first discovered by Ponce de Leon in his search for the fountain of youth. His crew caught an enormous number of sea turtles and ate them for dinner -- hence the name Tortugas, Spanish for turtle. They also found that there was no fresh water on the islands -- making them dry.

The sandy islands have had a colorful history. They were once used as a pirate base, one was the site of the world's first marine laboratory and the first underwater photograph was taken in the Tortugas.

One of the islands is named for the giant fort with a moat that virtually covers it. Construction on Fort Jefferson was started in 1846 to help protect the Florida Straits, but by the time it was close to completion (Congress even then couldn't agree on funding, it seems), weaponry developed for the Civil War had made it obsolete. Hospital Key once served as a quarantine colony for victims of yellow fever, and Bush Key was used as pasture for cows and hogs -- until it completely disappeared after a hurricane in 1870, only to reappear later.

Despite this colorful and tumultuous history, its relative isolation has saved it from the fate of its brethren: overfishing, overuse, pollution and damage. Up until now, that is. Today, the coral reefs, seagrass beds and hardbottom communities of the Tortugas region remain relatively pristine. In contrast, it's estimated that 13 of 15 commercially targeted reef fish in the Florida Keys are overfished.

Several things make including the Tortugas in the ecological reserve area absolutely imperative, according to David Holtz, Center for Marine Conservation. For one thing, the region's characteristics are ecologically unique. It is North America's only breeding ground for sooty terns, brown noodies, masked boobies and frigate birds, all of which depend on healthy fish communities for their prey.

The long-term significance of protecting the Tortugas is overpowering. Because of the way the ocean's circulation patterns move in the area, it's a source of larval dispersal. As coral spawns, the gametes move along in the current and fertilize other corals farther down the current's path, preserving biodiversity. This "recruitment conveyor loop" travels from the Caribbean through the Gulf of Mexico, by the Tortugas, loops up and goes halfway up the Florida Keys and then returns on the same route.

The Center for Marine Conservation is actively involved in the Tortugas debate. Commercial and recreational fishermen, owners of tourism boats, divers and others all have a stake in the outcome of the boundaries decision. CMC wants to make certain that the general public understands what's at stake for them and their children.

As CMC sees it, it's our last chance to protect the last real wild ocean place in the continental United States. "It's very clear that unless we protect this reef ecosystem, while it is still nearly pristine, the population increase that Florida is experiencing, the water pollution and the pressure on the fisheries will probably doom this rain forest of the sea," concludes Holtz. "We will probably not get another chance."

Copyright 1998, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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