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Florida Keys Natl. Marine Sanctuary

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Clayton Elliott, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was established in 1990 to protect the delicate chain of coral reefs in the Florida Keys.

The sanctuary is managed as a partnership of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection and the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sanctuary steering and management committees also include federal, state and local agency representatives.

The sanctuary uses a variety of strategies to accomplish its conservation goals, including regulatory and marine zoning strategies that restrict fishing and human activities. Other important strategies include education and outreach to the sanctuary’s user groups and residents of the Florida Keys.

Fishers and local residents fearful of federal regulation strongly opposed the sanctuary at its inception, burning the first sanctuary superintendent in effigy. The sanctuary has overcome its tumultuous beginning, and today benefits from a collaborative relationship with user groups.

No-take areas that are off-limits to fishing have been expanded to six percent of the marine sanctuary, and an expansion of municipal wastewater treatment facilities are eliminating discharges of nutrients to the near-shore waters.

MEBM Attributes

  • Complexity: Recognition of a range of stressors to the ecosystem.
  • Complexity: Use of science to inform management.
  • Scale: Application of conservation measures at an ecosystem scale.
  • Adaptive Management: Use of research findings to adapt conservation strategies.

Mission and Primary Objectives


The mission of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is to protect the natural and cultural marine resources of the Florida Keys.


Congress established the following initial objectives of the marine sanctuary:

  • Address the threat of vessel groundings by banning tanker ships and vessels larger than 50 meters from many of the waters around the Keys.
  • Prohibit off-shore mineral and hydrocarbon exploration.
  • Consult federal, state and local authorities in the development of a management plan for the sanctuary to protect sanctuary resources, facilitate public and private uses consistent with the protection of the resources, and restrict human activities in certain marine areas.
  • Develop a comprehensive water quality improvement program to reduce point and non-point sources of water pollution.


Key Parties

Lead Organizations


  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


  • Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Key Parties


  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


  • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission


  • Monroe County Marine Resources Department


  • Boaters
  • Conservationists
  • Divers
  • Fishers
  • Local residents
  • Tourism operators


Program Structure

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is managed as a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the state of Florida. The partnership is governed by a 1997 Co-Trustees Agreement for Cooperative Management.


Administration of the marine sanctuary is led by the sanctuary superintendent, and the regional managers responsible for the upper and lower portions of the sanctuary.

Sanctuary Management Team

Day-to-day operational decisions are made by the Sanctuary Management Team, which includes a representative of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), the sanctuary superintendent, sanctuary program manager and policy coordinator, and regional managers.

Resource Management Team

The Resource Management Team creates policies related to resource management and includes the sanctuary superintendent, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, FDEP, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC), and Monroe County Marine Resources Department.

Sanctuary Advisory Council

The Sanctuary Advisory Council provides a formal structure to engage other agencies, governments, organizations, user groups, and members of the public. Although its advice is not binding on sanctuary managers, many of its recommendations are accepted. Seats for voting members on the SAC are designated to represent user groups that include the following sectors: boating, diving, conservation, commercial, recreational and charter boat fishing, tourism, research and monitoring, and Keys residents.

Water Quality Protection Program Management Committee

Legislation creating the FKNMS also established a companion Water Quality Protection Program that addresses the near-shore water quality of the Florida Keys. The Water Quality Protection Program Management Committee administers water quality-management activities within the sanctuary. The committee includes representatives of NOAA, FDEP and EPA. A separate steering committee that includes the EPA and FDEP addresses water quality issues outside of the sanctuary.

Technical Advisory Committee

The Technical Advisory Committee provides scientific advice on the design and prioritization of projects relating to the Water Quality Protection Program, and research and monitoring activities within the sanctuary. The 24-person committee includes scientists and staff from federal and state agencies, academic institutions, private non-profit organizations and citizens.

Science Advisory Panel

The Science Advisory Panel periodically reviews the sanctuary’s research and monitoring program. It has included scientists from local academic institutions.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

Within a three-week span in 1989, three commercial freighters or cargo vessels ran aground in the Florida Keys, damaging the coral reefs. The groundings triggered intense media coverage and received considerable public attention.

Concern for the health of the coral reefs, however, had been building for years. Scientists had recorded a retreat in coral cover and die-off in seagrass. People who worked on the waters also noticed declines in the health of the ecosystem. Fishermen, for instance, remarked on a decline in the populations of reef fish.

Environmentalists and user groups were concerned that previous attempts to establish marine parks and conservation measures were not working.

U.S. Rep. Dante Fascell, a Democrat from Monroe County in the Florida Keys, a longtime supporter of the environment, filed legislation to create the marine sanctuary. U.S. Senator Bob Graham, (D-Fla.), sponsored the legislation in the Senate.

A bill was passed with bipartisan support, though some Monroe County residents and fishers strongly opposed a federally-mandated marine sanctuary.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Preservation Act.


Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

Stretching 220 miles southwest from the tip of Florida to the Dry Tortugas islands, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary includes 1,700 limestone islands. The Keys are remnants of ancient coral reefs and sand bars and lie at the conflux of three watersheds.

The Keys support a biologically diverse ecosystem. More than 6,000 species of plants, fishes and invertebrates live along the shore and under the surface of the water in highly interconnected and interdependent habitats.

The coral reef tract is the third largest reef system in the world and the most extensive in North America. One-third of Florida’s endangered species spend at least part of their lives in the coral reef habitat. All but the northernmost extent of the reef tract lies within the boundaries of the marine sanctuary.


Threats to the ecosystem of the Florida Keys include:

  • Tourism: More than five million people visit the Keys each year to enjoy the beaches, observe wildlife, snorkel, scuba dive, fish and sightsee.
  • Overfishing: Fish and other animal populations on the coral reefs have been dramatically altered.
  • Vessel groundings: Commercial and recreational vessels damage delicate coral reefs.
  • Excess nutrients: With much of the residential development on the Keys lacking municipal sewer systems, excess nutrients enter the near-shore waters from septic tanks, cesspools and shallow injection pools.


Major Strategies

Marine Zoning

Five types of zones were designated within the marine sanctuary to regulate human activity. No-take areas, which are off-limits to fishing and other extractive activities, encompass six percent of the sanctuary.

  • More than 120 Existing Management Areas were designed to recognize the jurisdiction of areas within and adjacent to the marine sanctuary that already were under state or federal management, including state parks and aquatic reserves.
  • Twenty-seven Wildlife Management Areas were designed to protect sensitive wildlife habitat on land and near the shore, such as bird and turtle-nesting areas. Human access is restricted. Idle-speed/no wake zones are enforced.
  • Eighteen Sanctuary Preservation Areas protect shallow, heavily used coral reefs, where boaters, divers and fishermen were jockeying for access and damaging the resources. Fishing and other extractive activities are banned without a permit.
  • Four Special-Use Areas were set aside primarily for research and education, and to help restore severely damaged resources. Fishing and other extractive activities are banned without a permit.
  • Two Ecological Reserves, encompassing about 160 nautical square miles, protect core areas of biodiversity by providing areas for spawning, residence and replenishment of marine life. Fishing and other extractive activities are banned without a permit.


Additional regulations govern vessel traffic and human activities, and prohibit touching or removing coral and discharges of treated or untreated wastewater from vessels. More than 700 buoys are used to designate areas to be avoided by vessels, signify the boundaries of no-take areas, and provide a mooring site for boats. The mooring buoys are placed near fragile coral reefs to help prevent boats from anchoring on the reefs. All sanctuary regulations are enforced by 17 officers of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission through a federal-state partnership agreement.

Outreach and Education

Outreach and education efforts are conducted in multiple settings. The sanctuary maintains a visitor’s center. Volunteers are stationed at heavily used reef sites during peak boating seasons to provide on-the-water education and information about the significance of the coral reefs and proper ways of approaching them. The sanctuary superintendent regularly speaks on a local radio program. Activities are held for middle school children. Sanctuary officials attend community events and provide brochures to tourism operators, dive shops and marinas.

Water Quality Protection

A Water Quality Protection Program was established by Congress in the legislation that created the marine sanctuary. The program does not have direct authority over Monroe County, but it recommends corrective actions and compliance schedules to reduce point and non-point sources of poor water quality. The program provides an administrative framework to enhance coordination of federal, state, and local agencies and includes a monitoring component to assess its progress.


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

Water Quality Monitoring Project

The Water Quality Monitoring Project is a component of the Water Quality Protection Program. More than $10 million has been spent since the beginning of the program to examine water quality, and coral and seagrass habitats. Baseline conditions and trends have been established.

The information is crucial to determine whether changes in the ecosystem can be traced to the interventions in the management plan.

Research also has sought to assess cause-and-effect relationships between pollutants and ecological impacts. Elevated nitrate levels have been found in near-shore waters, providing evidence of the need for the ongoing extension of municipal wastewater treatment facilities.

Marine Zoning Monitoring Plan

The Marine Zoning Monitoring Plan provides information to allow sanctuary managers to evaluate the zoning schemes. Fish populations and densities within and outside of the no-take zones are monitored. A socio-economic component to the monitoring plan evaluates the attitudes of user groups and Monroe County residents. Residents’ perceptions are evaluated against ecological findings to discern if the community may support new management actions.




The marine sanctuary has reduced negative human impacts on the ecosystem. Groundings of large vessels on coral reefs decreased to two during the period of 1990 to 2006, down from six groundings within the prior five-year period.

Populations of heavily exploited species are rebounding within the no-take zones. Gray snapper, black grouper, and yellowtail snapper are benefitting from the restrictions on fishing. Spiny lobsters also are twice as abundant in the no-take zones.

Near-shore water quality is improving. The amount of phosphorus and nitrogen has decreased. Monroe County has adopted a comprehensive water quality improvement plan. Additional municipal wastewater treatment centers are being built. Forty percent of Keys residents continue to rely on septic systems, injection wells or cesspools, down from 90 percent a decade ago.


Public attitudes are improving toward the marine sanctuary. A 2003 survey found that Monroe County residents would support an expansion of marine zoning to cover 20 to 25 percent of the marine sanctuary. Still, sanctuary officials say commercial fishermen remain heavily opposed to the marine sanctuary.


Factors Facilitating Progress

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has been facilitated by the following factors:

  • National Marine Sanctuary Act: Legal precedent for federal management of the waters in the Keys stems from the National Marine Sanctuary Act of 1972, which authorized the Secretary of Commerce to initiate a concept of designated marine parks to protect areas with special national significance due to historic, recreational or ecological qualities, among other factors.
  • Extraordinary Personal Leadership: The vision, patience, and open-mindedness of several individuals helped enable the development of the Marine Sanctuary during its contentious beginnings. Among those people were Dante Fascell, the Congressman who sponsored the legislation to create the Marine Sanctuary, Billy Causey, the first superintendent who led the outreach process, and George Barley, a wealthy business executive and conservationist who became the first chairman of the Sanctuary Advisory Council.
  • Sanctuary Advisory Council: The Sanctuary Advisory Council has been effective in enabling Ecosystem-Based Management principles at the Marine Sanctuary. It has served as a forum for scientific information to be disseminated to all stakeholders, and for resource managers to learn about the concerns of the community. More than 200 community members have served on the SAC. Residents began to see that its advice was taken seriously by managers, giving it legitimacy and credibility as a source for collaborative decision-making.
  • Sense of Place: The iconic quality of the Florida Keys made protecting the resources a national concern, giving Congressmen from far-flung places an incentive to act. The small-town characteristics of the Keys enabled sanctuary managers to break down mistrust by getting to know the residents.
  • Co-Management with Florida: Co-management with the state of Florida was instrumental in lending legitimacy to the Marine Sanctuary and demonstrating that the state had a significant stake in its success. The partnership works because the goals of the Marine Sanctuary and state are aligned.
  • Developing a Collaborative Approach: Sanctuary managers developed a highly collaborative approach to designate the two ecological reserves in the Dry Tortugas, which had been proposed, but dropped at the outset of the sanctuary because of strong community opposition. After NOAA re-initiated the discussion in 1998, the SAC named a 25-person working group of stakeholders, which included fishermen, divers, environmentalists, and federal and state officials. Members tried to learn how fishermen used the Tortugas area and used GIS software to map areas of heavy use against important habitat. The working group used a consensus-based process to outline the ecological zones that considered the ecosystem, rather than political jurisdictions.



The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has encountered the following challenges:

  • Fear of Federal Regulation: Although residents of the Keys supported prohibitions against oil development and large vessel traffic, they protested vigorously when they learned Congress intended to create a marine sanctuary with restrictions that would impact their use of the water, as well.
  • Reacting to a Predetermined Outcome: Some stakeholders refused to participate in the process to draft the first management plan, believing the outcome was predetermined. Commercial fishermen were the most alienated of user groups.
  • Funding and Staffing Challenges: Funding is the single-biggest challenge facing the marine sanctuary today. One-third of personnel spending pays for enforcement of sanctuary regulations. NOAA’s base funding to manage the sanctuary declined to $5.1 million in fiscal year 2010, down from nearly $6 million in fiscal year 2005.
  • Communication and Outreach Challenges: Reaching people remains challenging. A portion of the year-round resident population is highly transient, spending only a few years in the Keys. Many tourists may never know that the views they’re seeing are part of a marine sanctuary. Much of the outreach has to be repeated, year after year.
  • Broader Ecological Challenges: Efforts to save the coral reefs have been complicated by two factors. Coral is susceptible to small changes in water temperature and nutrient levels. And the interconnected nature of the ecosystem means that actions well outside the boundaries of the Marine Sanctuary can harm its most notable resource.


Lessons Learned

People involved in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary have learned:

  • Seek out critics and listen to them: Find ways to build bridges and work toward consensus.
  • Communicate through the Sanctuary Advisory Council: The SAC can develop consensus and communicate any recommendation clearly and in the same manner to all members of the community.
  • Invest heavily in a bottom-up process: Take a step back. Allow the user community to create criteria for managing the resource.


Website Links

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary: