Press Release Apr 1, 2024

Victory! Parks Group Wins Court Ruling on Marine Reserve Zone, Bringing Greater Protections for Biscayne National Park

"Thanks to this ruling, national park advocates have a chance to restore this beautiful marine national park to its former glory.” -- NPCA Sun Coast Regional Director Dr. Melissa Abdo

WASHINGTON – Late last week, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the National Park Service (NPS) violated the law by failing to implement a marine reserve zone in Biscayne National Park in a timely fashion. In accordance with Judge Rudolph Contreras’ March 29 ruling, the National Park Service “shall publish a proposed special regulation to designate the Marine Reserve Zone as soon as practicable.”

This victory for the country’s largest marine national park is a direct result of litigation filed by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) in 2020.

For decades, overfishing, overuse, and other threats have wreaked havoc on the delicate coral reef ecosystems of Biscayne National Park. Coral bleaching, coral disease, and pollution have taken hold in the park, and the impacts of climate change are amplifying the significant stress facing the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States.

Many of the park’s reef species – like black groupers and hogfish - are on the verge of collapse, compounded by years of intensive overfishing.

“This ruling is a long-awaited triumph for Biscayne National Park, its hundreds of thousands of annual visitors, and the vulnerable marine wildlife that make their home here. We filed this lawsuit to hold the National Park Service and Department of the Interior accountable for the promises they made to protect one of our country’s greatest marine wonders from destruction. We went to court because this national park deserved better.” Said Dr. Melissa Abdo, Sun Coast Regional Director at the National Parks Conservation Association.

“Overfishing, pollution, and climate change impacts have dealt serious blows to Biscayne National Park in recent years. Marine wildlife populations are teetering on the brink of collapse. A revered coral reef ecosystem, one that supports a diverse range of species from sea turtles to snappers, hangs on by a thread. But thanks to this ruling, national park advocates have a chance to restore this beautiful marine national park to its former glory.” Abdo continued.

For years, divers, boaters and world-renowned anglers have witnessed the decline in Biscayne’s iconic reefs firsthand. This decline threatens the health and sustainability of Biscayne’s irreplaceable marine ecosystems, as well as South Florida’s booming, multi-million-dollar outdoor recreation and tourism economies.

After more than 15 years of rigorous public debate, NPS decided on a plan of action to protect the park’s marine wildlife and habitat. The plan included creating a marine reserve and phasing out commercial fishing in the park. In 2014, NPS signed a Record of Decision announcing their plan to institute a permitting system to gradually phase out commercial fishing in the park, allowing those currently fishing commercially to continue but preventing new commercial fishing operations from being established.

In 2015, NPS signed a separate Record of Decision that called for the establishment of a no-fishing marine reserve covering only 6% of the park’s 173,000 acres. NPS determined these steps were necessary to protect Biscayne National Park’s natural resources.

Nearly a decade later, DOI and NPS have not acted, failing to fulfill their legal obligations to create a marine reserve and gradually phase out commercial fishing operations. Faced with the prospect of Biscayne National Park continuing to decline, NPCA had no choice but to file suit in 2020 to protect the park.

Today, NPCA is celebrating a historic win in court that “holds that NPS cannot wait any longer” to implement the marine reserve zone in Biscayne. Indeed, the Court recognized that, “[n]ine years after NPS committed to promulgating a regulation to establish a Marine Reserve Zone…it still has not promulgated a draft regulation. In the meantime, the Park’s coral reefs have continued to suffer from NPS’s delay.” This court decision recognizes that must change.

Unfortunately, NPCA did not prevail on a separate claim that NPS has unlawfully delayed implementing a phase-out of commercial fishing in the park. Regardless, NPCA’s position remains that NPS must move expeditiously to phase out commercial fishing in Biscayne.

“While recreational fishing in the public waters of Biscayne National Park will continue, we are glad this ruling will spur the establishment of a small, no-fishing marine reserve area within the park’s boundaries. This management change will help bring Biscayne’s coral reefs back to being the place many of us once knew. Together, we can sustain a marine park that is healthy, colorful, and teeming with underwater marvels for generations to come.” Abdo concluded.

NPCA is represented in the litigation by the law firm of Arnold & Porter.

The views expressed here are those of the National Parks Conservation Association and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Park Service.


About the National Parks Conservation Association: Since 1919, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) has been the leading voice in safeguarding our national parks. NPCA and its more than 1.6 million members and supporters work together to protect and preserve our nation’s most iconic and inspirational places for future generations. For more information, visit