NOAA 2001-R419
Contact: Stephanie Balian


The National Ocean Service, an agency of the Commerce Department's NOAA, received initial approval for an international measure that furthers existing protection for the Florida Keys. The measure is intended to reduce threats posed by international shipping activity to coral reefs, seagrass meadows and mangrove forests.

On behalf of NOAA and the state of Florida, the United States submitted a proposal to the International Maritime Organization to designate the marine area around the Florida Keys as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area. The coral reef ecosystem of the Keys would be the third area in the world selected for this designation, joining Australia's Great Barrier Reef and Sabana-Camaguey Archipelago in Cuba. The PSSA would stretch from Biscayne National Park to the Tortugas encompassing all of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The IMO is a specialized agency of the United Nations that is responsible for issues relating to international shipping.

"Designating the waters around the Florida Keys as a Particularly Sensitive Area brings international recognition of the ecological significance of this region," said Margaret Davidson, acting director of NOAA's ocean service. "PSSA status will help educate the international shipping community about the sensitivity of coral reef resources to international shipping activities and increase compliance with domestic measures already in place to protect the area."

The waters around the Florida Keys and the Tortugas are one of the most heavily trafficked shipping areas in the world. An estimated forty percent of the world's commerce passes within a day and a half sailing time of Key West. Ships can cause damage to the coral reef ecosystem through anchoring, groundings, collisions, and accidental and operational discharges of harmful substances.

The IMO's Subcommittee on Safety of Navigation approved two measures associated with the PSSA to help protect coral reefs at the international level. The measures include a prohibition against ships anchoring in the North and South areas of the newly-designated Tortugas Ecological Reserve and an area located outside the reserve in the Tortugas Bank.

The second measure is an amendment to the existing Areas To Be Avoided that created buffer areas to keep ships greater that 50 meters in length from the reef tract. An ATBA is an area that all ships or certain classes of ships should avoid because navigation is particularly hazardous or it is exceptionally important to avoid casualties within the area. The amendment will create safer shipping tracts along the ATBA to reduce the potential for collisions or groundings that would threaten the coral reef from spills of oil, fuel and other contaminants.

The approval of these protective measures and PSSA proposal by the Subcommittee on Safety of Navigation is the first step forward in this international process. Final designation of the PSSA and adoption of the associated protective measures will be considered by the IMO when it meets in November 2002.

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