Recovery and Resilience in the Florida Keys: An Update From Kris Sarri, President and CEO of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation
Anyone who has made the trip from Miami to the Florida Keys knows that it is one of the most beautiful and scenic drives in America. Driving down U.S. 1 South last month on my way to attend a meeting of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Committee, I was not sure what to expect. My visit came on the heels of a disaster – Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys on Sept. 10, 2017, as a category 4 storm, causing catastrophic damage both on land and at sea. The impacts on land were evident: piles of debris with mattresses, washing machines, and campers littered the roadside. But, what about under the ocean’s surface?
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary suffered unprecedented damage from high winds and significant storm surges. The surge broke apart docks, flooded homes, and sank vessels, creating a tremendous amount of pollution and debris. Over 1,600 vessels were identified as potential pollution threats in the Florida Keys – most damaged beyond repair and potentially leaking fuel. Significant amounts of debris floated on the surface and subsurface making navigation challenging. Reef assessments and information from local dive operators catalog everything from sofas and refrigerators to pipes and traps on the reef tract and backcountry flats. In the hurricane’s direct path through the Middle and Lower Keys, divers found fracturing and eroding of the delicate coral reef framework. Additionally, high wave energy and choking sands caused unexpectedly high levels of sponge mortality in some locations. Many people don’t realize the crucial role that sponges play in the health of our ocean – they are the water filtration systems of the sea!
Coral reefs stretch south from just north of Miami all the way down to Key West and continue to the Dry Tortugas. In the Florida Keys, reef-based recreation and tourism are a significant part of the economy, supporting more than 33,000 jobs (58% of total jobs in the county!) and generating $2.3 billion in annual sales. Healthy reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds are the lifeblood of the coastal communities in the Keys.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Committee (the SAC) is made up of dedicated citizen-volunteers who provide guidance to the Federal government on conserving this treasured area, and I joined their December meeting in Marathon, FL, to discuss hurricane recovery and the health of the reef. Of particular concern to local businesses and community are fishing traps that were lost during the storm. There are 465,000 lobster traps in the State of Florida, with 350,000 of those located in Monroe County. Florida Keys fishermen estimate about 150,000 lobster traps were displaced during Hurricane Irma, many of which will continue to ghost fish until they are retrieved or rot and fall apart. Lost or abandoned fishing gear and other trash entangle and harm corals, sea fans, sponges, sea turtles, manatees and other marine life. Marine debris from the hurricane also degrades seagrass and mangrove habitats and detracts from the natural beauty of the islands.
As I have learned first-hand, Florida Key residents are resilient and resourceful. Right after the hurricane, SAC members and community residents began working to address the marine debris issue, developing a plan to catalog its location and work with local dive shops and the Florida Keys sanctuary staff to remove it from the reef.
The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation is proud to join this effort. The Foundation is seeking funds to support the sanctuary’s and local dive operators’ efforts to train dive professionals and engage volunteer certified divers to conduct reconnaissance on marine debris location and removal; work with dive operators to remove and dispose of underwater debris that is high risk for damaging important resources in key sanctuary management areas; and work with the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association to remove and dispose of large amounts of surface trap debris and complete “ghost traps.” The project will support marine debris removal efforts in the sanctuary and will also support the economic recovery of the Florida Keys. In the wake of Hurricane Irma, many small local businesses, including dive operators, are financially struggling. By hiring local dive professionals and local fishermen to support marine debris removal efforts, we are finding an economical solution to remove debris and directly support the local economy, in turn, aiding in the recovery of the Florida Keys. This partnership also has a long-term benefit to both the marine environment and the local economy by training community stakeholders in marine debris removal efforts and site monitoring to improve reef health for the long-term.
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, with its many partners, continues to evaluate storm impacts and develop pragmatic solutions to address problems. The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation is here to support these critical efforts and we hope you will share in our commitment of aiding in the recovery of this vital community.
P.S. If you need ideas for Spring Break, visit the Florida Keys and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. They are open for business and worth the visit! And if you are a SCUBA diver or love to snorkel, please use a Blue Star dive operator. Learn more at: https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/bluestar/operators.html
Stay tuned for more information about our soon-to-be-launched Blue Star Fishing Guides program.