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.
In 2001 Key West commercial fishermen landed $40 million worth of seafood. While they braced for losses, that value jumped to $56 million in 2011. In the meantime, recreation and tourism that are tied to the health of the ocean continue to support approximately 33,000 jobs in the Florida Keys.
Last week the NMFS announced that:
- Overfished species such as black and red grouper, yellowtail and mutton snapper increased in presence, abundance and size inside the reserve and throughout the region;
- Annual gatherings of spawning mutton snapper, once thought to be wiped out from overfishing, began to regroup inside the Reserve; and
- Commercial catches of reef fish in the region increased, and continue to do so;
"This research shows that marine reserves and economically viable fishing industries can coexist," said Sean Morton, Dry Tortugas sanctuary superintendent. "The health of our economy is tied to the health of our oceans. They are not mutually exclusive."
As the Dry Tortugas Reserve illustrates, protecting habitat—along with reducing bycatch and setting science-based fishing quotas—is one of the pillars of restoring our fisheries. Where soldiers once supposedly stocked the moat of Fort Jefferson with sharks, regulators are now helping to ensure that the waters surrounding it remain well-stocked for generations to come.
In 2010 Oceana marine scientist Elizabeth Wilson traveled to the Dry Tortugas to tag carribbean reef sharks in the wake of the Gulf oil spill. For pictures of that expedition click below.