Commemorating marine sanctuary's 20th year

In October, it will be 20 years since Congress made the waters surrounding the Keys a marine sanctuary. President George H.W. Bush signed the bill into law a month later.

But before the bill to create the sanctuary was passed, the idea didn’t sit well with everyone in the Keys.

One of the original ideas behind the sanctuary was to keep commercial vessels from damaging the reef. The initiative picked up steam when three large ships grounded on the reef in a span of 17 days in 1989. Nevertheless, a coalition of fishermen, divers and treasure hunters rallied to defeat the proposal, and even the Monroe County Commission sent Commissioner Doug Jones to Washington, D.C. to try to stop the bill.

But it was too late after the 155-foot freighter Alec Owen Maitland ran afoul of a reef formation off Key Largo in October 1989. Then a 475-foot Yugoslavian freighter ran aground in the shallow shoals off Key West later that month. The final straw was when the Greek freighter Elpis also hit a Key Largo section of the reef in November 1989.

Florida’s congressional lawmakers said something had to be done. The bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Dante Fascell, a Democrat representing Dade County, and later in the Senate by former two-term Florida governor, Democrat Bob Graham. It passed both houses on Oct. 27, 1989.

The sanctuary encompasses 2,800 square nautical miles surrounding the Keys. Commercial vessels are not allowed within the sanctuary’s boundaries. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency tasked with protecting the reef, says the sanctuary was created to balance the long-term health of the reef’s ecosystem with the economy it supports. The Florida Keys Reef Tract is the only living coral barrier reef in the United States, and it is the third-largest coral reef in the world.

Also prohibited within the sanctuary is mineral mining and extraction and oil and gas exploration.

The Keys are one of 14 federally-designated areas in the United States National Marine Sanctuary.

The sanctuary waters already enjoyed some federal protection. When the Everglades National Park opened in 1947, the areas that make up the Keys marine sanctuary were included as a protected area.