Even after arduous efforts to help the coral reef recover from Hurricane Irma, future challenges loom for the Florida Keys marine ecosystem, says the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary superintendent.
“It’s an amazing and beautiful resource, and a lot of people want to enjoy it,” Superintendent Sarah Fangman said Wednesday. “The future will have more and more people who will be competing for space.”
Fangman, speaking to the Island of Key Largo Federation of Homeowner Associations, said sanctuary staff estimates about 21,000 people venture into the sanctuary’s 2,900 square miles of protected offshore waters, seagrasses and mangroves every day.
That “level of use, all well-intended, is going to have impacts” on the aquatic system, Fangman said.
“The sanctuary draws an enormous amount of visitation from people who enjoy the wonders in these waters,” she said. “It’s also a huge impact on our economy…. All those folks coming here bring their money — and pressures.”
Visitors and residents who are in the Keys because of the water generate an estimated $2.36 billion annually, Fangman said. That does not include several hundred millions of dollars from commercial fishing.
Sanctuary waters are “a huge economic driver to this community, so we have to find that balance” between environmental protection and livelihoods, she said. “We know how important this ecosystem is to this community.”
Some of those issues will be addressed in the pending management-plan update for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Originally expected to be released in mid-2015, governmental complexities, staff changes and the hurricane have slowed work on the regulatory document.
No release date for the draft plan has been confirmed, Fangman said, but “the very long process” is getting closer to the finish.
Sanctuary staff, working with state officials, will release a set of four potential alternatives “ranging from no action to a different level of protection beyond what we currently have,” Fangman said. Priorities are keeping waters “healthy, sustainable and accessible.”
A public comment period of at least three months will follow, with multiple public sessions planned in the Keys.
“When we have it ready for showtime, we are bringing it to the community,” Fangman said. “We make decisions based on public input…. The sanctuary does not belong to [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]; it belongs to this community.”
Sanctuary staff and other agencies have been inspecting impacts from Hurricane Irma along the reef tract from Miami to the Dry Tortugas since shortly after the Sept. 10 landfall, Fangman said.
“We did find localized, significant damage,” Fangman said. “It’s not surprising not surprising that most of impacts were in the Lower Keys,” excluding Key West.
Sponges in areas of Lower Keys were smothered by sediment, leading to fatal suffocation, she said. Many corals were cracked or overturned.
“The good news is that a lot of corals are out there and still surviving,” she said. “There was a lot resiliency where corals were able to withstand the power of Irma.”
“Hurricanes are natural events and coral reefs have evolved to withstand hurricanes,” Fangman said. “However, I would argue our reef system had already been withstanding a lot of threats...It was not a fully healthy system [before the storm] due to heat, disease and other kinds of stressors.”
Underwater debris cleanups are ongoing, with volunteer efforts appreciated, she said. Divers removing trash from water should be careful not to damage coral, and avoid touching lost commercial fishing gear.
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206