Two and a half hours west of Key West by boat is lonely Fort Jefferson, a Civil War-era fort marooned in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico and encrusted in coral reefs. Here the color of the water ranges from cerulean to toothpaste-aquamarine as magnificent frigatebirds, masked boobies, and sooty terns haunt the coral-white beaches of this unfinished garrison, a former prison for union army deserters.
One of seven islands that make up the Dry Tortugas (so named for their lack of water and wealth of turtles at the time of Ponce de Leon’s discovery in 1513) Fort Jefferson is a monument to the ingenuity and industry of engineers and masons who slogged bricks from as far as Brewer, Maine, to the middle of the ocean to construct a fort that has survived in the crosshairs of two centuries of hurricanes. Now, the park is also a monument to the scientific principles of ecosystem management, proof that protecting habitat benefits all—environmentalists and fishermen alike.
In 2001, over the objections of local fishermen, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that it would establish a 151-square nautical mile no-take zone in the area—the Tortugas Ecological Reserve. It was assumed that closing the well-known grouper and snapper spawning grounds of the Dry Tortugas to fishing would hurt the industry’s bottom line.
But that didn’t happen. The fish got bigger. And there were more of them.