NOAA 99-R418
Contact: Colleen Angeles


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, working in collaboration with other federal, state and territory stakeholders, proposes to establish an ecological reserve to protect the best remaining coral reef habitat in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The Tortugas ecological reserve would be off-limits to all taking of marine life, but would be open for diving, snorkeling and other non-consumptive activity.
The Tortugas, located 70 miles west of Key West and more than 140 miles from mainland Florida, has the clearest and cleanest waters and the healthiest coral reefs in the entire 2800-square-nautical-mile sanctuary. This biologically rich, relatively undisturbed site plays a critical role in sustaining the health of Florida's coral reefs and economy. In the Florida Keys alone, tourism related to coral reef ecosystems produces more than $1.2 billion per year and the annual dockside value of reef-dependent fisheries is estimated at $48.4 million.

"Coral reefs are an important biological resource to the nation. The Tortugas region is a special place that needs special protection," said Sally Yozell, NOAA's deputy assistant secretary for oceans and atmosphere. "We will continue to work with the Fishery Management Councils, the state of Florida, the National Park Service and other interested parties to develop the best conservation management plan to ensure a healthy environment and healthy economy."

The establishment of the proposed reserve was unanimously approved by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council. It would consist of two distinct and separate reserves totaling 185 square nautical miles. Tortugas North, 125 square nautical miles, includes Sherwood Forest, an area of lush coral growth largely in state waters, as well as half of Tortugas Bank, an extremely productive area of the Sanctuary. The Advisory Council has proposed that the National Park Service include approximately thirty square nautical miles of important seagrass and shallow coral reef habitat in Dry Tortugas National Park.

Tortugas South, a 60-square-nautical-mile area that lies entirely in federal waters, would protect Riley's Hump, an important spawning site for snapper and grouper species. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council already closes Riley's Hump to fishing in May and June each year to protect these spawning areas. The proposed reserve would protect the area year-round and extend south to include valuable deepwater reef habitats that are home to species such as golden crab, tile fish and snowy grouper.

Studies show that marine reserves can increase the number and size of fish within the protected area, and help supply important recreational and commercial fish to surrounding areas. One year after implementation of 23 no-take zones, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has seen an increase in the number and size of spiny lobsters within the Western Sambo Ecological Reserve. In addition, there has been an observed increase of reef fish, which are important to the ecology and to commercial and recreational fishing.

The sanctuary will begin seeking approval from other agencies with jurisdiction over waters in the proposed reserve, including the Gulf Fishery Management Council, the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida's Governor and Cabinet, and the Dry Tortugas National Park.

The Gulf Council will be meeting Nov. 9-11 to begin its review of the sanctuary's proposal to create an ecological reserve and to expand sanctuary boundaries. The sanctuary will hold public hearings and accept comments on the proposed reserve in spring 2000. After considering public comment and making necessary changes to the proposal, the sanctuary proposes to implement the reserve in summer 2000.

"Protection of coral reef ecosystems is a priority and we will continue to use the best scientific evidence, local knowledge and public input to protect the corals, preserve critical coral reef habitats and spawning grounds, and enhance economic opportunities within the Tortugas," added Yozell.

Tortugas is also the location of the world's first underwater photograph, the world's first marine protected area (Fort Jefferson National Monument) and the first tropical marine laboratory in the Western Hemisphere (Tortugas Marine Laboratory established by the Carnegie Institute of Washington, D.C.).

Worldwide, coral reefs cover less than one percent of the ocean floor. They are likely to be the most valuable - and most threatened - marine ecosystems on the planet. Recent studies suggest that close to 60 percent of the world's coral reefs are being degraded or destroyed by human activities and other stresses including polluted runoff, sedimentation, fishing impacts, ship groundings, new diseases and climate change.

For more information on Tortugas 2000, visit or contact the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary at (305) 292-0311. Additional coral reef information can be found on NOAA's Web site at