Coral Reef Protection in Biscayne National Park

Last Updated: August 20, 2014

Establishing a Marine Reserve

Biscayne National Park is the largest marine park in the National Park System, created to protect, “a rare combination of terrestrial, marine, and amphibious life in a tropical setting of great natural beauty” for present and future generations. However, Biscayne’s mangrove swamps, coral reef ecosystems, and sea grass meadows, all primary habitat for native wildlife, have declined in health over the last several decades. The park is increasingly threatened by worsening water quality, invasive species, overfishing, and climate change. Furthermore, Biscayne National Park is an urban park, located close to the city of Miami.  As the city’s population grows, so too does pressure on park wildlife and habitat. 

Fishing in particular poses an ongoing threat to the park’s coral reef ecosystem.  Heightened fishing power—the ability to catch more fish based on advances in technology—and the growing popularity of recreational fishing have caused a dramatic decline in the abundance and diversity of fish populations.  Today, most fish observed within the park are below the legal size limit for taking.  Scientific research has shown Biscayne National Park’s coral reefs and fish populations are severely threatened, with some species on the verge of collapse. 

What is a Marine Reserve?

A marine reserve is a “no-take,” or no fishing area that restores marine ecosystem health and biodiversity and protects wildlife and habitat. Marine reserves work. Just five years after the creation of a marine reserve in Dry Tortugas National Park, approximately 70 miles west of Key West, studies show the marine reserve provides significant protection to coral reef and seagrass ecosystems.  The marine reserve in Dry Tortugas is a “no-take,” no-anchoring zone designed to protect shallow water habitats and coral reef species.  A 2012 report shows more and larger fish with increased spawning rates within the reserve, including red grouper, mutton snapper, yellowtail snapper and hogfish.  In contrast, the number and size of the same species outside the reserve have remained the same or have declined.

Why We Need a Marine Reserve in Biscayne National Park

Marine reserves are based on science and years of research worldwide have shown their benefits.  They protect coral reef ecosystems and fish populations and can create better fishing opportunities when increased numbers of fish in the reserve “spill over” into areas outside the reserve.  Marine reserves also reduce impacts from marine debris and damage to coral reefs from boat groundings and anchors. A marine reserve would provide an area within Biscayne National Park where other types of recreational use—such as diving, snorkeling, swimming, and boating—can be enjoyed without interference from fishing activities.  This will help ensure that our national park remains open and accessible for the enjoyment of all types of visitors.

General Management Plan Updates

Biscayne National Park is in the process of updating its General Management Plan (GMP), which will guide park management over the next 20 years.  The park originally proposed a marine reserve, or an area that does not allow fishing or resource extraction, as a tool to protect 7% of the park.  Despite nationwide public support and strong scientific evidence that marine reserves are successful at increasing the size and diversity of fish species, the Park Service revoked its recommendation for a marine reserve when faced with opposition from fishing groups and the State of Florida.  Park managers now support a scientifically-untested special recreation zone (SRZ). The SRZ allows for some fishing and extractive activities inside its boundaries and would give 500 annual permits to recreational anglers and commercial fishing guides.

To provide the best protection possible to threatened coral reefs and fish species, the park needs to create a marine reserve. Implementing monitoring, and enforcing the SRZ will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, given the park’s limited resources. The SRZ was not designed using strong science.  On the other hand, marine reserves are cost-effective, supported by years of scientific data. Most importantly, they work quickly. If damage to the park’s coral reef ecosystem continues, the resources are in danger of disappearing forever.  The creation of a marine reserve would help ensure the conservation of Biscayne’s majestic marine resources for the benefit of all Americans for generations to come.

For more information:

Caroline McLaughlin
Biscayne Program Analyst
Sun Coast Region
Phone: (954) 961-1280
Email: cmclaughlin@npca.org

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