NOAA 99-R403
Contact: Justin Kenney, Cheva Heck


The federal government has installed state-of-the-art navigational aids in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to help ships avoid grounding on fragile, threatened coral reefs, the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced today. The new beacons were purchased by the owners of a ship that grounded on a coral reef in 1997, as part of a damage assessment and restoration agreement.

Officials with the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA installed the northernmost of eight Racon radar transponder beacons at Fowey Rocks, approximately 20 miles southeast of Miami.

"The coral reefs of the Florida Keys are a national treasure. Providing a navigation system that will help prevent vessel groundings is a truly creative and innovative approach to repairing harm to the public's resources," said Terry Garcia, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.

The beacons are mounted on navigational structures along the Florida reef tract, stretching from Miami to Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas, 70 nautical miles west of Key West. The devices emit unique signals that appear on ship radar, allowing mariners to precisely identify the location of navigational aids and warn ships that they are nearing a reef. Each signal has a range of 15-20 nautical miles.

The owners of the Contship Houston, a 613-foot container ship that went aground on a coral reef near Maryland Shoal off the lower Florida Keys, purchased the beacons. The installation of this navigation system represents a creative solution to compensating the public for the injury that was done to the reef by reducing the likelihood of future navigational errors. The U.S. Coast Guard installed the system and has agreed to maintain the beacons.

The hull of the Contship Houston cut a swath through the reef, crushing and breaking corals for approximately 400 meters. Under federal and state statutes, the parties that injure resources in national marine sanctuaries are responsible for restoring the injured resources and the services they provide.

The restoration subsequent to the Houston grounding is the result of unprecedented cooperation between the vessel owner, insurer, NOAA, and the state of Florida. From the start, the owner and insurer assisted with assessment and emergency restoration of the injured coral reef habitat. As a result, restoration activities were completed within 10 months of the vessel grounding.

Shortly after the grounding, more than 3,000 injured pieces of coral were reattached to the reef substrate, and pieces of reef debris were removed or stabilized with epoxy to prevent ongoing injury to the reef and marine life. The vessel owners paid for and deployed flexible concrete mats to stabilize more than 7,650 square feet of reef substrate and also placed large boulders to provide three dimensional habitat for resident organisms.

"This effort brought together a great team of federal, state and private partners that was able to do more with less, and provide a new era of protection for our coral reefs," said NOAA Sanctuary Superintendent Billy Causey.

NOAA's Marine Sanctuaries Division, Damage Assessment and Restoration Program, the U.S. Coast Guard and the state of Florida all made significant contributions to the successful resolution of this incident. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is one of 12 national marine sanctuaries administered by NOAA, which operates under the U.S. Department of Commerce. Together the 12 marine sanctuaries protect more than 18,000 square miles of important marine habitats, including coral reefs, kelp forests, intertidal, sandy beach and open ocean.

Editor's Note: A map detailing the Racon beacon placement is available on the Internet at: