The National Marine Sanctuaries Act: A Love Affair


Lara Cerri/St. Petersburg Times
The biological diversity of Looe Key Reef makes it popular with snorkelers and divers.

Some people may question how a love affair with a piece of federal legislation is possible, but that’s what it has been for me. Our courtship has not been easy, but I’m hooked.

In 1975, the first national marine sanctuaries were designated under the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972. One was the area around the iron-clad warship Monitor off of North Carolina. The second was 103-square nautical miles of coral reef habitat, the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. The Florida Keys Citizens Coalition, which had lobbied for the reef to become a park, was thrilled. But it also became clear that the conservation community was placing a lot of confidence in the new marine sanctuary program to protect the reef’s large and diverse living coral formations, its commercially valuable fish and invertebrate populations, and its value to sports fishermen and recreational divers.

In spite of other federal regulations, exploitation of and damage to the reef was increasing at an alarming rate because of nearby overfishing and pollution. In order to change the situation, an active management program—with education, research, and enforcement capacity—was needed.

Torn between my conservation ethic and my passion for Looe Key Reef, located 60 miles farther down the reef tract, I disagreed with the desire for another sanctuary designation. I did my homework and discovered that few enforcement patrols had been conducted at the Key Largo sanctuary and there were no education programs to speak of. There seemed to be no workable plan for managing the intensely used area. Looe Key Reef was one of my favorite places on Earth, and I didn’t want to see it become a token “green box” on a map. Yes, it was being overly used by divers and fishermen, but I didn’t see how a sanctuary would change that situation.

Then I scrutinized the marine-sanctuary legislation. I realized that, if implemented properly, the law mandated protection and conservation while allowing for continued use. And the more I got to know it, the more I loved it. The act called for conserving and using marine resources wisely, increasing public appreciation of the marine environment, and maintaining habitats and their ecological services. The legislation described a marine-protected-area program that, when fully implemented, could protect the resources of a sanctuary for future generations. I was smitten.

In May of 1983, I was hired as the manager of the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. Now, 27 years later, my affair continues, but it has not been without challenges. In 20 years we’ve implemented management programs that address direct impacts to the sanctuary resources. We instituted a no-go zone for ships larger than 50 meters in length, resulting in eliminating large-ship groundings since February 1997 (compared to a major grounding almost every year before that). The installation of over 50 mooring buoys has eliminated anchor damage on shallow reefs. The prohibition of spearfishing and wire fish traps in the Looe Key Reef resulted in an immediate increase in the number of reef fish. An extensive education and outreach program explains the significance of Looe Key Reef as a classical spur and grove reef, teeming with marine life. And comprehensive research into the sanctuary’s resources is ongoing.

One failing of the marine sanctuaries act was omission of any reference to a baseline, making the job of measuring success and failure difficult. Back in the 1970s, the concept of establishing a baseline in federal legislation was not considered because we were still treating our ocean resources as infinite; we weren’t yet paying close attention to declines in ocean health. Most federal fisheries at that time had no federal constraints, nor did many of the state fisheries, so we lacked valid scientific assessments. The next time the National Marine Sanctuaries Act is reauthorized (which is required every five years), we need to advocate for defining a baseline, to set goals for fish populations and ecosystem health. That way, the act I fell in love with would be perfect.

While large marine or ecological reserves (that is, fully protected areas) are not the only solution, that’s where we need to start. We need to take into consideration climate change, land-based sources of pollution, habitat loss and destruction, and overfishing. Establishing no-take areas, if they’re large enough, will begin to improve conservation of resources, but we must address the other problems. We have to use less traditional management tools and set aside large, intact portions of ocean ecosystems so that marine resources can recover. Most marine creatures are fairly resilient and will recover if given the protection they need at critical times in their life cycles. We have to make this love affair long lasting and polyamorous, dedicated to every critter—from the smallest microbe to the largest whale.