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 Leonâ€™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 allâ€”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 areaâ€”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 industryâ€™s bottom line.
But that didnâ€™t happen. The fish got bigger. And there were more of them.
Two expedition updates in one day - hold on to your hats! In this one, Oceana marine scientist Elizabeth Wilson describes yesterdayâ€™s successful shark tagging adventures, including a monster nurse shark:
Today we traveled to the Dry Tortugas, a small group of islands at the end of the Florida Keys, to study sharks. On board with us is the shark team from University of Miamiâ€™s R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, led by Dr. Neil Hammerschlag. Other members of the team on board are Lab Manager and graduate student Dominique Lazzare and Captain Curt Slonim.
We arrived in the Dry Tortugas National Park, anchored near Fort Jefferson and started surveying for sharks. We had a successful research trip where we tagged and sampled three Caribbean reef sharks and two nurse sharks. We attached identification tags to the Caribbean reef sharks and sent them back on their way. The nurse sharks were too big and feisty to bring on the boat for taggingâ€¦one was 10.5 feet long and was the biggest nurse shark any of us had ever seen.